Now, planning gets underway for Ontario’s recreation district

Election billboard campaigning for the marijuana and recreation district initiatives. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

ONTARIO – If you want to make a difference, get involved in the political process.

That was the prime message delivered by Ontario resident Mary Jo Evers last week as she talked about the passage of a local initiative to create a recreation district.

“One person can make a difference,” said Evers.

According to final unofficial results, Ontario voters approved the new government entity by a margin of 534 voters – 2,601 yes and 2,077 no – but Evers said she wasn’t sure how the vote would come out.

“I thought it could go either way. You know, you are asking people to approve a tax and that is never popular,” said Evers.

The tax rate for the district will be 55 cents per $1,000 of assessed value beginning in 2019. The boundaries will be the same as the Ontario School District.

Voters Tuesday also picked five members of the district’s board.

Evers, along with Ontario residents Megan Cook, Robert J. Boyd, Matt Mejia and Toni Davila will sit on the new governing board.

The district provides youth activities such as soccer, basketball, flag football, crafts, tennis, pickle ball, volleyball and track along with other sports. 

Evers spearheaded the effort last spring for the new district after she learned Ontario budget woes meant the city’s recreation department would only be funded until January. 

The new district could accept from the city the aquatics center, skate part, recreation district offices, a proposed splash pad and tennis courts. 

Evers said when she realized the district initiative looked like it would pass, her first thought was, “now the real work begins.”

There are several next steps, said Evers. The first, she said, will be for the new board to meet in January to “set the policies and rules and get the by-laws set up.”

The district can’t begin to collect taxes until next fall, but it could operate from July until October – when the first tax receipts are scheduled to come in – on a credit line.

A funding gap, though, exists between Jan. 1 and June 30, but Evers said she and city officials are looking at three options to bridge the funding chasm.

The choice with the best chance of success, said Evers, would be for the district to give the city money from a grant and allow it to operate the district until June 30. 

Evers said the district was notified it was awarded the grant – $20,000 from the Oregon Community Foundation – Friday. 

The grant is designed to help with start-up costs.

Evers, who is the finance director for the Ontario School District, said the recreation district could also operate with volunteers or borrow money to employ one person during the start-up phase.

Another alternative, said Evers, would be to let the city lend money to the district to cover its first six months of costs.

The city pledged last summer to help the district operate by offering it loans. 

Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, said Thursday that the city intends to stick by its pledge.

“What we committed to was to help them transition. I think we will do the best we can to make sure there is not a gap in service,” said Brown.

Brown said he still needs to “present some ideas to the city council” about how it will support the rec district.

Ron Verini, Ontario mayor, said he believes the city council would decide soon on the issue.

“I would think sooner rather than later so everyone is on the same wavelength,” said Verini.

Evers said previously the district budget would be nearly $680,000. 

The cost to run the district for a year – with one full-time employee – is $250,000. That includes utilities, water and other administrative costs, said Evers.

If the district decides to take over the city’s recreation buildings, the remaining money would be used to maintain and improve them, said Evers. 

That includes renovating the aquatics center and splash pad and maintenance on the skate park and tennis courts. 

Evers said reopening the aquatics center will be one of her top priorities. 

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.