Youth soccer players scramble for the ball during an Ontario Recreation Department game last week. The Malheur County Court recently reviewed a proposal by a local resident to create an independent recreation district for the city and place it before voters in November. (Jayme Fraser/The Enterprise).

VALE – The Malheur County Court proved lukewarm last week to supporting a ballot initiative to create a separate recreation district in Ontario.

Mary Jo Evers, an Ontario resident, is spearheading the campaign to create the district. She asked the court May 9 to place the initiative on the November general election ballot because the deadline to refer the measure by petition had passed.

The court, though, decided to table the request until after the the Ontario 1 percent sales tax vote this Tuesday. Evers said if voters approved the sales tax Tuesday, then she will end her campaign because the city will have enough money to pay for the recreation department. Evers began work on the project two weeks ago after she discovered the city intended to slash the recreation district from its upcoming budget. The city subsequently agreed to fund the recreation department for six months – until the end of 2018 - to give Evers time to put together a plan to create a new recreation district. If the sales tax vote fails, Evers, who is the finance director for Ontario School District, said she anticipates creating the recreation district along the same lines as the Ontario Library District.

Ontario voters approved the library district in November 2008. The library district is within the boundaries of the school district and is funded by property taxes.

The library district collects a property tax of 55 cents per $1,000 of property value. The median home value in Ontario is $143,000. Such homes pay $78.65 annually to fund the library service. Evers said the recreation district could include other assets such as the shuttered aquatics center.

Evers last week delivered a proposed budget for the district and a draft of a petition to the county court.

“My intent of doing the budget was to demonstrate that if it is formed at that rate it would be economically feasible to do the things I think we could do,” said Evers.

The preliminary recreation district budget – based on collecting a property tax of 55 cents per $1,000 of property value – would generate nearly $680,000 the first year. Evers said the cost to run the district for one year stands at $123,720. The other money would be plugged back into the district to open the aquatics center, said Evers. Evers said once the pool is open, the cost for taxpayers for the district could drop.

“The most it (the levy) could ever be is 55 cents. So, if the pool starts to break even, the district will have ability to levy less taxes, maybe opt to only levy 30 cents,” said Evers.

Ontario residents Megan Cook and Ken Hart also attended the session in support of Evers’ plan.

Hart, who is president of Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Ontario, said a viable recreation district is good for the whole community. While Hart emphasized he was at the meeting as a citizen, he said that a recreation district is a draw for future employees.

“At the end of the day, as an employer, making sure we have amenities for our kids, and as a health care person, having healthy activities for our community is pretty important,” said Hart.

Cook, who spearheads a civic effort to create a splash pad park in Ontario, said she wants to ensure children have fun activities.

“I want to see something available for our children in case the recreation department closes,” said Cook.

Another advantage to the district, Evers said, is that it would have a steady revenue stream.

“It is always there for the rec department and the pool and it wouldn’t go away. The city has to balance those needs with police and fire and streets,” said Evers.

Ron Verini, Ontario mayor, said he would support a separate recreation district, especially if the sales tax fails.

“If the public really wants to put this together like the library district, I have absolutely no problem at all seeing it on the ballot. I don’t see why anyone would be against voting on it,” said Verini.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: pat@malheurenteprise.com or 541-473-3377.