EDITORIAL: For kids’ sake, Ontario voters should approve rec district

Unless voters decide otherwise, hundreds of kids in Malheur County will be without sports and other programs next year. The Ontario City Council has decided to chop the city’s recreation program by the end of this year. A measure on the Nov. 6 ballot would fill that void with a new, separate recreation district.

The city’s Recreation Department runs the flag football program, offers pickle ball, and teaches tennis. Through the summer, kids can get involved in a variety of summer camps. They can learn to cook, work with wood, and how to paint, among other camps. These activities provide a safe haven for kids. Fees typically are modest, opening the door to as many kids as possible to join the fun. In a community with a high rate of poverty, that’s essential.

But the Ontario council decided the city couldn’t afford such a program any longer. The money spent on this program is being diverted to other city services, such as police. The council has been wrestling with budget cuts and calculated something had to give. Councilors chose to protect as best they could essential services such as public safety.

Ontario citizens stepped up, though, to rescue the program. Lead by Mary Jo Evers, a community activist who works for the Ontario School District, citizens proposed creating the Ontario Recreation District. They got voters to petition to put the proposal on the ballot – a direct exercise in democracy.

Voters should understand what they are being asked to do. Yes, they are being asked to save and improve recreation programs. But they are asked to do two other things as well. One is to create a new government. The recreation district would be a free-standing entity, governed by a publicly-elected board. The second is voters are being asked to tax local property to pay for this effort. The tax would be new, not a replacement for what’s being paid to Ontario city government.

That said, voters ought to enthusiastically embrace this measure. The recreation district offers a chance to improve the quality of life in Ontario by continuing these youth programs. The district will improve the quality of life for others with plans to take the “closed” sign off the Ontario Aquatics Center. Letting that community swimming pool remain dark is a waste.

Voters should also be clear what the district would not be doing. In other communities, such entities are commonly referred to as “parks and recreation” districts or departments. In Ontario, managing city parks would remain a city function. A new recreation district won’t be tending them.

This should be one of the easiest choices voters make this season. This is a citizen-driven idea, which means it was the people, not government, promoting the district. Ontario city voters should vote yes on this measure. – LZ