Local government

Ontario fee proposal to fund cop slot draws opposition from three city councilors

ONTARIO – Money to add an officer to the Ontario Police Department approved by a citizen budget committee may create one of Mayor Debbie Folden’s first political tests.

The debate among city councilors is over whether to use marijuana tax revenues to finance officer or instead reinstate a $5 fee on utility bills.

The city had the $5 public safety fee on its books until three years ago when the rate was dropped to $3. Last year, the Ontario City Council discarded the fee entirely.

Folden said she wants to reinstate the fee to create long-term financial stability for a new police officer position.

Councilors Ken Hart, Sam Baker and John Kirby oppose reinstating the public safety fee.

The police job was approved by the city’s 14-member budget committee with Hart, Baker and Kirby voted against the proposal.

Hart said last week that while he supports hiring another police officer, he doesn’t believe the public safety fee is the way to cover the cost.

“I am concerned at a time when we have additional marijuana money we turn around and increase taxes on Ontario residents,” said Hart.

“I would argue that we have enough money at the city to be able to pay additional costs for another officer without the $5 fee,” said Hart.

Hart, along with Kirby, said they believe there is enough cash in the city’s general fund budget to pay for the added position.

Kirby said the city does not need “to tax people right now.”
“We will fund the officer with the budget,” Kirby said last week.

Property taxes along with marijuana sales revenues are funneled into the city’s general fund.

Folden, though, said she is worried about funding a new position with marijuana taxes.

“Public safety is a high priority and I don’t know if marijuana money will always be there,” said Folden.

During the city’s budget sessions in April, money was earmarked for a new ladder truck for the fire department and money to pay down the city Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) debt.

Hart said he supports paying down the PERS debt.

“However, If I had to pick between a (police) officer and paying down PERS or taxing everyone, I would say use those funds and not use additional taxes from our taxpayers,” said Hart.

A new police officer is essential for public safety, said Mike Iwai, Ontario police chief.

Iwai said while the number of calls for service have declined since last year, it is the type of calls police respond to that create challenges.

“The cases are much more significant when they involve personal crimes, substance abuse and mental health. They involve additional resources both internally and externally,” said Iwai.

Iwai advocated for an additional police officer in September 2021 after calls from local merchants about transients continued to climb.

Iwai said then a new police officer at a cost of about $130,000 a year won’t entirely solve the transient problem but would help.

Now, he said, his department operates under a philosophy that no call is too small for a response.

Without an additional officer, he said, his department may resort to prioritizing calls for service.

“I don’t want to go down that path,” he said.

Other cities in the county also tap residents for revenue to support emergency services. Vale, for example, carries a $10 fee on utility bills to fund its fire and ambulance department.

The police officer funding issue be resolved on May 24 when the city council is schedule to give final approval to the city’s 2023-2024 budget.

Because of recent changes to the city charter, Folden’s $5 fee proposal must be passed by a two-thirds vote of the city council. That means if Kirby, Baker and Hart don’t adjust their stance, the fee increase is dead.

Folden said she hopes to get the fee passed.

“Public safety is why I ran for mayor,” said Folden.

Councilor Eddie Melendrez said he supports the $5 fee.

“Law enforcement needs more support,” said Melendrez.

He said he has received input from local residents who want a more robust police presence in town.

Folden said she is aware tax or fee increases are usually not very popular.

“It will probably make people mad but I have to try. If I can help people and help them feel safe, I’ve accomplished my goal,” said Folden.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]m

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