Ontario's John Scholtes shows off his garden. The 77-year-old Brogan native would rather be spending his time tending his flowers and trees but a belief that the city's proposed sales tax is wrong prompted Scholtes to write a four-page pamphlet against the levy. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – John Scholtes’ backyard garden is a quiet place where pathways made of good Malheur County rock curve past a plum tree, shrubs, flowers, and a fountain.

And it seems a long way from the swirling community controversy around Ontario’s 1 percent sales tax.

But Scholtes is an example of how the city levy is stirring deep and wide conversations.

The sales tax debate began right after the Ontario City Council approved the tax in September.

The city said it needed the extra money to fully fund city operations.

In October, a group of Ontario citizens, spearheaded by residents Jackson Fox and Dan Lopez, gathered enough signatures to put a repeal of the tax before voters on the May ballot. Ballots are already out for the May 15 election.

A recent analysis by the city showed the tax would raise an estimated $3.8 million a year.

Scholtes, a 77-year-old Brogan native and retired U.S. Forest Service employee, said he didn’t want to get involved in the sales tax controversy.

After all, there was his garden, a refuge where time slips by.

“I festered on it for a long time,” said Scholtes.

As he sat on the sidelines of the sales tax debate, he listened.

He heard justifications for and against the levy.

He pondered the subject as he worked in his garden. Then he decided to act because he felt the sales tax wasn’t the only way to solve the city’s financial woes.

“I didn’t want to get involved. I served in a lot of different public service groups early in my life so I was a little burned out. But I kept hearing story after story that I couldn’t understand or agree with,” said Scholtes.

So Scholtes, who said he is not affiliated with any campaign group, began researching. He thought carefully about the city’s financial woes and the sales tax.

Then, over four days last month, he penned a four-page epistle against the sales tax.

He then spent $165 to print 400 copies and started handing them out.

Called “Before You Vote” the document outlines the city and state’s financial problems, what Scholtes sees as the real cost of the sales tax, and the failure of past Band-Aid fixes to budget troubles.

He visited local stores where “No on sales tax” signs were posted and gave copies. He stood outside the recent sales tax forum sponsored by the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, offering his study to people as they left. Scholtes said anyone wanting a copy can contact him at [email protected]

“The Band-Aids are not true solutions to the problem,” said Scholtes.

Scholtes is no stranger to government finances. He said in his 30-year career managing government nurseries, he created budgets and administered contracts.

“I used about 12 contracts a year in my last assignment. Some were very complicated,” said Scholtes. In the handout, Scholtes wrote that in his 36-year government career he saw “scheme after scheme of ‘fixing’ something when the ‘fixers’ either did not understand the cause of the problem in the first place or got so caught in some kind of band-aid fix that they lost focus on their overall responsibilities.”

Scholtes said his main concern is the school district. He worries, he said, that if voters pass the sales tax, a future bond effort for the district would be doomed.

“No one seemed to be thinking about the schools or how much the tax would cost the citizens. It was all about getting other people to pay for it,” said Scholtes.

In the handout, he also questions the city’s decision to outsource its public works department.

The Ontario Public Works Department is now managed by CH2M.

Scholtes, who worked under CH2M as a Forest Service employee, wrote the firm is competent.

 “I am not questioning CH2M with Jacobs’ ability to manage projects nor the need of some entities to have projects managed. But management of a city is not a project,” he said.

Scholtes wrote that he believes mismanagement created the city’s revenue problems and called Ontario a “dying, squabbling debt-riddled city.”

Scholtes said he there are several solutions more viable than a sales tax. Marijuana is one.

“It is legal to grow it and smoke it. We are not selling it so we are not collecting any money to help finance police,” said Scholtes. 

Scholtes said while police and ambulance service should continue to be free for city residents, others should pay.

“From my experience, other communities bill for ambulance service. If you go to court you have to pay a court fee,” said Scholtes.

Friday, while he puttered around in his back yard and described plans for his garden, Scholtes reflected on the tax debate.

“I don’t like sales taxes,” he said.

He thinks the state may be headed in that direction no matter what happens in Ontario.

“I don’t know any way out of it and I wouldn’t oppose a statewide sales tax where the schools, the cities, all state entities shared in it,” he said.

But for Ontario right now, he said, it is the wrong move.

“I did have a conversation with the mayor. I have no animosity toward any of the council members. The mayor is a good fellow but he thinks the school bond would still pass,” said Scholtes.

Then Scholtes squinted across his garden, deep in thought for a moment.

“I just think he is wrong,” said Scholtes.

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