In the community, Local government

VOTE 2022: Candidates for Ontario council tackle city issues

ONTARIO – Three incumbents and two outsiders are running for three open seats on Ontario’s City Council. 

Michael Braden, a local certified public accountant, is running for his second term. Braden, born and raised in Weiser, Idaho, lists a master’s degree in business from Boise State University. Braden is also an adjunct professor and small business development center adviser at Treasure Valley Community College. 

Ken Hart, appointed in 2020 to fill a vacancy left by the departure of Dan Capron, seeks his first full term. The former press secretary for U.S. Senator Mark Hatfield serves on the city’s Budget Committee the board of Treasure Valley Community College. He is former president of Saint Alphonsus Medical Center Ontario and is now chief financial officer for Valley Family Health Care.

Susann Mills, an Ontario property manager appointed to the council in 2021 after the recall of Freddy Rodriguez, is looking for another term. The longtime Ontario resident served as a councilor from 2006 to 2010. 

Penny Bakefelt, a former business owner and director of Washington County’s visitors association, is seeking her first term in office. No stranger to city issues, Bakefelt was appointed to Ontario’s ad-hoc code enforcement committee to review the ordinances. In addition, Ontario Police Chief Michael Iwai selected Bakefelt to help develop a Neighborhood Watch program. 

McShane Erlebach, a former commercial helicopter pilot, was born and raised in Ontario and earned a two-year degree from TVCC. He recently changed his occupation to become a property manager to spend more time with family.

Candidates for Ontario council spots are, clockwise from top left, Penny Bakefelt, Michael Braden, McShane Erlebach, Ken Hart and Susann Mills. (ANGIE SILLONIS/Special to the Enterprise)

The Enterprise sent a questionnaire to each candidate, and all but Mills responded. The answers have been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: What are your top three concerns for the community? 

Braden: Police, ordinances and homelessness. 

Bakefelt: Public safety is my first priority and should be the first priority of all who serve our community. Within this subject are many issues we face, including crime, drugs and homelessness.

Hart: Promote Ontario as a place to move to, live in, raise a family in, and retire in. Ontario’s property tax base is insufficient to pay for our city’s essential services. The increase in transient homeless drawn to Ontario due to Oregon’s decriminalization of hard drugs.

Erlebach: The ill-repair and neglect of the youth and community facilities, including sports complexes, the community pool and the golf course. 

Additionally, the stagnant growth of the community compared to surrounding areas. 

Q: For each concern, what one action would you take if elected to address it?

Braden: For policing, I would work with the police chief to do our best to strengthen the full-time employees of the police department. Every small improvement makes a significant impact on public safety.

An ordinance review committee has been working for the last year on addressing our community’s needs and goals and ensuring the ordinance code sufficiently and effectively supports those needs and goals. I serve on that committee with many community citizens and have made great progress. Homelessness, this is a communitywide concern. It affects every phase of our daily living as these are our neighbors and community members. Acting in caring kindness is the appropriate course. What can be done? Interim steps should include our efforts to provide non-trespass locations for their stay and leveraging referrals to partners that can provide many levels of support services.

Bakefelt:  I would like to see strict enforcement of laws. Decades ago, New York City implemented a strict enforcement program for even the least dangerous laws. The result was that even the higher crimes significantly dropped and it became the safest time for the citizens of NYC. I would also encourage the utmost cooperation between all agencies that touch on public safety. 

I would like to see a fresh approach to the budget with outside eyes – including mine. I would bring in those directly affected by various areas, such as executives from construction companies and manufacturing and retail industries. I strongly believe in reducing regulations other than making matters more challenging by adding more rules. I’d expand on the previous idea of bringing in those directly touched by keeping our city attractive, making it more attractive and building it. The first adviser resources I’d bring in would be from the building industries and next would be those from the world of finance. What better combination of advisers to help us find ways to make it easier to make our city more attractive? They would also be able to help us by pointing out the needless and harmful red tape –changes for the betterment of all. 

Erlebach: The city needs to invest in infrastructures, such as sidewalks, curbs, water and sewage, to attractsmall and more significant businesses to the community.

The beautification of the community needs to be taken in a phased approach to help solve homelessness, dilapidated buildings, and the need for more vegetation.

Hart: Ensure the continuation of Ontario Promise through not just city financial support but the support of other civic groups, corporate sponsors and foundations. Promoting Ontario as a community that invests in its youth’s educational attainment will help our community now and far into the future. I will continue to work with staff to create a business-friendly environment. Also, I will continue to promote Ontario as a community that embraces the educational advancement of everyone and work to reduce our Public Employment Retirement System debt to free up additional revenue for staff and other city-provided services.

I will continue to work with Police Chief Michael Iwai and our city attorney to support his enforcement of the violation of our laws related to crime and transient homeless and determine how best to get services to those that want services (which might be in another city or location) and discourage those homeless that don’t want to help themselves from staying in Ontario. 

Q: What current spending in the city would you change if you could to either increase or decrease it? Explain why.

Erlebach: I would decrease the amount of marijuana tax revenue that is being put into the PERS debt and start utilizing it for the community.

Hart:  Decrease the amount of funds spent on the annual PERS expense. Ontario pays $1.3 million annually in general fund revenue for PERS-related expenses (this annual liability covers prior and current employee PERS benefits). Much of this expense is due to the unfunded pension liability estimated at $16 million from previous years’ PERS obligations. The council has put a significant portion of the local marijuana dispensary tax funds toward paying down this unfunded pension liability. In addition, by paying down the old debt, the city frees up revenue each year for other operating expenses such as police and fire staffing. According to city finance staff, by paying down the debtn advance so far, the city has an additional $300,000 annually to use for staffing and other city services.

Braden: The police department needs more resources. Ontario spends more on its police department than it generates in property tax revenues. Finding other sources of funding to expand and support our police is a constant effort.

Bakefelt:  The first thing that needs to be done is carefully examine the current use of funds and where and how to save on those resources. Of the various agencies, and within those agencies, their sections or divisions, find where there is duplication and what activities can be consolidated. After savings are entirely examined, consolidation accomplished and waste eliminated, we will know how much we can dedicate to other priorities – primarily public safety. Like virtually all jurisdictions, we need additional law enforcement personnel and upgraded equipment tobe compatible with current technology. 

Q: What do you consider to be the economic health of the community and what needs to be done? 

Hart:  The economic health of Ontario is robust, with several anchor employers and a solid small business base. These include Simplot, Saint Alphonsus Medical Center, Walmart, TVCC and the region’s school districts. 

The current city proposed and the voters adopted to protect our city’s sales tax-free nature and require any future attempts to increase a sales tax to be referred to the ballot. If elected, I will continue to support staff in efforts to invest in infrastructure development to make Ontario a place where businesses can grow and develop. Also, if elected, I will continue collaborating with federal and state elected officials, county and other city officials, and economic development-focused groups such as Snake River Economic Development Alliance, TVCC and P2P [Poverty to Prosperity] to attract business development in Ontario.

Braden: The city has a large budget but also provides many core services, including streets, utilities, and public safety. A councilor constantly weighs the cost/benefit of spending these finite resources. Each decision to spend has a ripple effect on other service areas. Overall, the city’s health is good. Community economic health is what we make of it; we have good jobs, housing, and community amenities. Our incomes are generally less than in other areas, but we can build a better community by being involved, by acting in care and concern for others, by using our individual efforts through volunteerism and service to keep our community prosperous.

Bakefelt: Ontario’s economic health is neither superb nor a disaster. However, “OK” is quite a range and we want to be better than just OK. One can find more vibrant cities but one can find many much worse off. We’re not Virginia Beach, but we’re not San Francisco. Bringing in citizens with specific specialized knowledge and hands-on experience will provide a great deal of guidance. I would also bring inrepresentatives from the real estate industry. When Ontario becomes a “go-to” city, our economic health will significantlyrise. As that occurs, we must have plans to accommodate growth.

Erlebach:  (The community’s economic health) is in a constant plateau. The city needs to be able to attract more businesses to the city by investing in the city. 

Q: What should the city do to encourage more family housing?

Erlebach: Allow more annexation of land into the city limits and the investment of infrastructure. 

Hart: Continue to support the $10,000 per home economic support the city began several years back and encourage Malheur County and the Border Board to continue their development tax credit support as well. 

Braden:  The city can impact family housing by ensuring proper zoning is in place. It can work with prospective builders in navigating this complex and expensive regulatory environment, which it does in the community development department. A housing incentive program is in place to help offset these regulatory costs; the city will pay new builders $10,000 for new residential housing construction. The city provides letters ofsupport for builders working on grant applications at the state or federal level and works with these builders on diverse housing projects.

Bakefelt: Many of the abovementioned ideas regarding public safety and making Ontario more attractive address this. Particularly, the programs proposed in No. 4 above involving builders, financers and the real estate community will be valuable in developing such programs.

Q: How would you ensure that minority populations are heard and represented in city government?

Bakefelt: We are fortunate here in Ontario to already have three well-established organizations involved in minority population affairs. Many are unaware of these organizations and some in government wait for them to come forward instead of reaching out to them. I will contact them, visit them, and ask for their advice. The three organizations here in Ontario to which I refer are:

EUVALCREE, which is Hispanic based.

IRCO (Immigrant & Refugee Community) IRCO serves people from Iraq, Syria, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The only responsible approach to the issue of minority populations is to first reach out to them. They know their issue. For us to come up with our ideas and bring those into play without first going to them is the height of arrogance. I will reach out to them. 

Braden: I would like all persons to be heard and represented. I encourage every resident to attend a meeting and call or email their councilors with questions, concerns, and suggestions. This is a community working together. Erlebach: With my diverse household, I can accept input and speak for the minority population with an open and clear mind. I would provide inclusive outreach and public engagement for all individuals.

Hart:  I believe the current election method used by the city where the top three candidates win instead of running for each open seat on the council is very conducive to making elective office and makes it easier to obtain for all groups in Ontario. The city should continue to promote opportunities for citizen involvement in volunteer committees in many media outlets including social media in both English and Spanish.

Q: What is the top reason a voter should pick you for city office?

Hart: During my first two years, I have proven myself to be an active member of the council, leading the efforts to adopt a new City Charter which ensures a sales tax will not be imposed on the public without voter support. I also got the city to support the reopening of the pool with a $250,000commitment to go toward the construction of the pool. 

I proposed to the voters support an increase in the transient occupancy tax by 1% to support the operations of the pool when opened and support our local Malheur County Fairgrounds and established the Ontario Promise to make sure that every student in Ontario knows that the City of Ontario is invested in their future educational success. 

I bring a strong business background to the city, serving as president of one of the largest employers in Ontario for several years. I have also promoted our city’s economic development and educational enrichment through my years as a volunteer of Poverty to Prosperity and my current role as an elected official on the Treasure Valley Community College Board.

Braden: I will address the office’s concerns with patience, research, and networking to arrive at a well-reasoned conclusion on any and every issue before us.

Bakefelt: I am the best candidate for City Council because I am the one who has already demonstrated a commitment to improving our quality of life here in Ontario. I do not just talk and make promises. My actions are already moving us forward to a safer and brighter future. As the saying goes: “I don’t just talk the talk. I walk the walk.”

Erlebach: I want this community to prosper today and for future generations.

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