Audience members listen during a Town Hall session on Ontario's 1 percent sales tax last week at Four Rivers Cultural Center. (The Enterprise/John L. Braese).

ONTARIO – Two political campaigns for and against Ontario’s proposed 1 percent sales tax cranked up last week as local residents peppered city officials with questions at a Town Hall.

An estimated 140 people attended the event last Thursday at Four Rivers Cultural Center, conducted by the Malheur Enterprise.

Ontario Mayor Ron Verini and City Manager Adam Brown fielded questions and briefed the crowd. The meeting also featured a live Facebook feed that by late in the week had been viewed by more than 2,400.

“You know I was truly impressed with the format. The fact that there weren’t any outcries, it really was one of the most successful meetings we’ve had with the community,” Verini said.

Verini and Brown delivered a stark message: Ontario faces a money crisis. If voters approve the sales tax, they said, the city would not only avoid layoffs but the city could hire more police, reopen the pool and invest in streets.

Along with residents, all but one member of the Ontario City Council was on hand for the meeting. That included Council President Norm Crume and councilors Tess Winebarger, Betty Carter, Marty Justus and Ramon Palomo.

Two political action committees are competing to sway Ontario voters, who will see the tax measure on the May primary ballot.

 Citizens for a Better Ontario was formed in January and supports the tax. It is spearheaded by Verini.

The competing political action committee, STOP The New Sales Tax, formed last year. Members of both PACs attended the Town Hall.

The sales tax became contentious right after the city council voted to approve it last September.

The city said it needed an estimated $3.8 million in annual revenue to stop cuts to city services and expand police and other departments.

In October, a group of Ontario citizens, spearheaded by residents Jackson Fox, a former city councilor, and Dan Lopez, gathered enough voter signatures to put a repeal of the tax before voters on the May ballot.

For almost two hours, the mayor and city manager explained the tax, why it was necessary and answered questions from Zaitz and the audience.

“A town hall is about participating. We hope you leave here a little better informed,” said Zaitz.

Verini told the audience that the city is traveling toward a major fiscal crisis and without the tax revenue, deep cuts in personnel and services would be made.

“The cutbacks we are looking at down the road are more serious than anything in the past. We are down to the bare nubs at city hall,” said Verini.

Verini also told the audience that if voters scuttle the tax, he would “absolutely, without question” support adding a $9 fee to city water bills to at least avoid layoffs.

The anti-sales tax group was invited to participate in the Town Hall but declined. However, several members of the coalition were in Town Hall audience, though none posed questions to the city leaders.

Verini and Brown said they want the community to be safer, reflecting what they said was a demand from city residents.

And both said they want the city to grow.

All of that, they said, takes investment.

“To bring jobs to Ontario, we truly need to do more than maintaining what we have,” said Verini.

Verini said he and councilors keep their fingers on the pulse of the city through feedback from citizens.

“We get input from the community every day,” said Verini.

Brown said PERS, the state retirement system, continues to haunt city finances, consuming a large chunk of cash each year.

“It is something we have very little control of but it has a lot of control over us,” said Brown.

The city currently owes $10 million in PERS fees, said Brown.

Brown conceded that despite statements about budget woes, the city during the past few years added positions.

For example, a code enforcement officer was hired by the city even as elected leaders discussed budget challenges.

Brown said, however, that the code enforcement officer was hired based on feedback from residents.

“The city council had a lot of people say we have got to get rid of the blight,” said Brown.

An audience member asked why the city spent $20,000 on a consultant’s study about the sales tax. Brown said the survey was crucial.

“How much would you invest to find out if it is a wise decision?” Brown replied.

Brown said the sales tax would also be used to beef up the city police force.

Verini said Ontario is becoming “less safe,” but sales tax revenue will add more “boots on the ground.” Brown said the city would hire three police officers, two detectives and fill a vacant captain slot if voters approved the sales tax.

Zaitz asked Brown how much would crime be reduced with more police officers.

“The goal is to provide a safer community. Everything is done incrementally,” said Brown.

Pressed for specifics, Brown called on Police Chief Cal Kunz, who stepped forward from the audience.

Questioned by Zaitz regarding a drop in arrests by police, Kunz said that retirements left five positions vacant and while those slots were refilled, each one of those new police officers had be to be trained. That training takes away from regular patrol duties, he said.

Recreation opportunities in Ontario – such as reopening the pool – would also be a top priority if the sales tax passes, said Verini.

 “One of the loudest outcries from citizens is recreation. The pool is a community resource. It is truly what our citizens are telling us,” said Verini.

Megan Cook, a co-owner of Stan’s Heating Inc. in Ontario, asked Verini and Brown about reducing salaries of city employees to help cut costs.

“We have discussed it. But with that discussion comes the challenge of working with our unions,” said Verini.

The day after the session, Cook clarified her question.

“I do feel the city manager, Adam Brown, the fire chief, Terry Laughton and the police chief (Cal) Kunz all have made a positive impact on our community. So, my question was not to be taken as that I think they are paid too much,” said Cook.

Cook said she wanted to know if reducing wages for city employees had been discussed by city leaders as they considered the proposed tax.

“And if the sales tax does not go through, will they look at reducing wages in order to hire more people?” she asked.

Verini replied city leaders did look at the wage issue.

Jim Hutchens, a former county resident who now lives in Boise, attended to find out more about the tax proposal. Hutchens said city leaders needed to broaden their options for generating revenue.

“I don’t think they should focus on one thing,” said Hutchens.

Bob Wilkins, who owns Wilkins Saw and Power in Ontario, said the forum helped him get a better understanding of what the city was trying to do with the sales tax.

“It was about education and I think that is the most important thing,” said Wilkins.

Fox said he felt Verini and Brown didn’t answer key questions.

“It looked like the politicos playing dodge ball with questions. Les asked some important questions but seemed not to get straight answers,” said Fox.

Verini said after the meeting the feedback he received was important and constructive.

“The challenge we have had in the past is the people that were coming to the forums and the town halls were overwrought with emotion and negativity. This crowd had a cross-section of people who asked intelligent questions,” said Verini.

Ontario resident Ryan Reeser watched the live Malheur Enterprise Facebook feed while he sat in the audience and said he felt the session was good.

“It was great to see the turnout. It wasn’t a slam session. It was factual,” said Reeser.

Maggie Wood, also an Ontario resident, said she was pleased with the Town Hall.

“I came in just hoping things would be civil. They were,” said Wood.

Last week’s session will not be the last one on the sales tax.

The Ontario Chamber of Commerce has scheduled forum on the matter for April 23 at 6:30 p.m. at Ontario Middle School.

The middle school is situated at 573 S.W. 2nd Avenue.

“It is another opportunity for people to ask questions,” said John Breidenbach, Ontario Chamber of Commerce CEO.

Breidenbach said both political action committees have been invited to attend. Neither has confirmed they will appear, Breidenbach said.

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