Without Warning Ontario Ends Its Clean-Burning Vehicle Fuel Subsidization Program

Ontario, the wealthiest of all of San Bernardino County’s 24 municipalities, which already had nearly two-thirds of a billion dollars running through all of its funds annually before it was given another $96 million per year infusion when its voters approved a one-cent sales tax override in November of last year, abruptly ended its clean energy program recently.
Despite widespread resident speculation that the program was discontinued because diversions of the revenue it brought in found its way into the pockets of bigwigs at City Hall instead of being used to perpetuate making compressed natural gas available to city residents at an affordable price, the city officially maintains the subsidies came to an end because it is Ontario leaders’ consensus that it is inappropriate for the city to be competing with the private sector for the provision of a product that is now widely available on the open market.
Ontario officials have long prided themselves on, and emphasized, their responsible stewardship of the city’s assets and taxpayer-provided money and how that has benefited residents by rendering it into the county’s most stable and well-funded municipal operation. In their joint electioneering material beginning in 2014, repeated in 2018 and reprised in 2022, Ontario City Council mainstays Mayor Paul Leon and councilmen Alan Wapner and James Bowman have maintained that their understanding of the intricacies of municipal finance, mastery of budgetary issues and their enlightened, well-meaning and level-headed spending priorities merited them reelection. The city’s residents are the primary beneficiaries of their combined level of sophistication, they have long insisted, allowing Ontario to stand head-and-shoulders above all other cities in San Bernardino County as a full-service city, one in which City Hall is firmly in control of the destiny and welfare of Ontario’s citizens and able to provide for the needs of residents and offer programs unavailable elsewhere in the region.
Indeed, Ontario in its 2022-23 budget is channeling $661,615,132 through all of the city’s various funds, almost twice that of its nearest rival, Victorville, with its $333,533,046 2022-23 budget. Financially Ontario is well beyond Fontana, which is functioning with $284,614,530 in total revenue this year; Rancho Cucamonga which has $278,469,810 with which to operate; Chino and its $274 million budget; and Rialto, which is spending $220,143,860.Ontario’s monetary might dwarfs the $190 million budget of the largest city population-wise in the county, San Bernardino, the county seat which declared bankruptcy nearly 11 years ago. Ontario’s budget is almost four times that of Colton’s $168.9 million current annual spending program and it has four-and-a-half times the spending power of, variously, Upland at $146 million in total spending through all of its funds, Chino Hills’ $144,259,670 in revenues and Hesperia with its $144 million budget. Ontario’s budget is more than six times the size of both Redlands and Apple Valley, which boast annual revenues of $108,744,617 and $103,158,459, respectively, in yearly income. Even Montclair, Ontario’s immediate neighbor to the west which as the county’s second smallest city landwise stands as one of the most dynamic retail intensive cities locally pound for pound, with its $43,280,083 annual budget pales in comparison to Ontario.
Ontario has a larger budget on its own than ten of the county’s cities – Needles, Twentynine Palms, Yucca Valley, Yucaipa, Big Bear Lake, Highland, Loma Linda, Grand Terrace Adelanto and Barstow, combined.
Time was when Ontario sought to make good on its claim that its residents would benefit from its standing as the county’s wealthiest municipality by offering them a wealth of services and programs, ones which other jurisdictions simply could not afford to offer.
One of those was a clean-energy program that was an outgrowth of the city converting a portion of its municipal fleet to engines capable of running on compressed natural gas. Tapping into state and federal grants to make those conversions, the city further established a compressed natural gas fueling station at its city yard located at 1440 South Cucamonga Street. As a municipality with a substantial fleet of such vehicles, the city was in a position to purchase large quantities of the fuel at a bargain basement rate. Thus, the opportunity presented itself for the city to engage in a synergistic program whereby it not only cut down on caustic burnt fuel emissions through the use of clean-burning fuel vehicles, it was able to encourage the use of similarly converted vehicles by the private sector and city residents, doing so with the incentive of fuel they would be able to purchase at discounted rates, at prices below what was available commercially, as the city resold the compressed natural gas to them at its cost.
For years, the City of Ontario was living into its pronounced role as a benign big brother, a force for positive social change, in this instance reducing pollution and allowing the public to participate in a brave new world, a public-private partnership that worked.
Without any real warning, however, the city discontinued the program earlier this year.
Ben Mesa told the Ontario City Council at its meeting on Tuesday night, “The CNG (compressed natural gas) station at the city yard closed abruptly with no public discourse. I’m affected by it. Other residents in the city are affected by it. The gas price hike we all felt. The city’s price was less than $2 a gallon during the spiking prices. They adjusted the prices two months later and then they closed the pumps. With the pumps being closed to the public, I cannot fill at the yard that I fund. It’s funded by the city, subsidized by our tax dollars. The gas isn’t given to us. We still pay for [it], but we’ve been blocked from it and we can’t utilize it somehow. We’re subjected to the 76 station on Vineyard, the Clean Energy [retail operation] in the airport, the Chino station. It’s not regulated, so we’re subject to predatory prices. We pay for the city yard. We pay for the city usage with all of our tax dollars. It’s a great convenience. It is subsidized by the city, the state and the feds. Through all my resources, my researches, we were told the city cannot operate a pump because it’s not profitable. Well, the city’s not a profit-making entity. It costs taxpayers’ dollars to operate.”
Mesa appealed to the city council to reestablish the availability of compressed natural gas at the city yard. He said cutting the public off “was recommended by, I’m assuming, the manager at the station and then the city manager probably approved it to close it. But somebody closed it without notifying the public. There’s many residents and there’s many people that work in the City of Ontario that depend upon natural gas. I have four gas vehicles in my family, four voters. I can count ten people that I know within the city limits that utilize it.”
Mesa said the city should think about accommodating businesses that went to the trouble and expense of converting large trucks to use compressed natural gas. “We’re asking to put the gas pump back on and limit the use to the big rigs,” he said.
Mesa said companies employing big rigs were avid users of the service, and would return in droves. “At $2 a gallon vs. $6, they would take the gas,” he said.
Others who had grown accustomed to purchasing compressed natural gas at the Cucamonga Street City Yard said they and the community had been undercut because the revenue the city was realizing from the compressed natural gas, which should have been used to maintain the program, was being diverted to use for other purposes by city officials. That money pool had been used as a slush fund by city officials for inappropriate purposes, they said. The misdirected money should be recovered and used to reestablish the city’s clean-burning fuel program, they insisted.
Other Ontario residents, ones who acknowledged they did not have vehicles with engines converted to run on compressed natural gas, said the shuttering of the clean burning fuel sales program was just another indication of how the city’s leaders – both its elected officials and top-ranking staff at City Hall – have lost their way and their moral compass.
The city, with its annual budget of two-thirds of a billion dollars, has now been provided with $96 million more in revenue by voters’ approval in November of Measure Q, they point out. The city is flush with cash and in better financial shape than any other city in the county. Ontario should be expanding its public and social benefit programs, not shuttering them, those residents said. The city’s residents, with their 15,972-to-14,030 vote or 53.24-to-46.74 percent approval of Measure of Q showed generosity toward City Hall and now they are being rewarded with stinginess on the part of city officials, according to those residents.
Ontario City Manager Scott Ochoa dismissed as “misinformed” suggestions that revenue from residents’ and the private sector’s purchase of compressed natural gas had been utilized to create a slush fund utilized by city officials, which ultimately resulted in the demise of the city’s clean burning fuel program.
Rather, he said, the program was closed out to adhere to making a strict differentiation between the provinces of the public vs. private sectors.
Ochoa said, “[Y]ou can speak to our [municipal] finance team about how practically impossible it would be to maintain a ‘slush fund’ or any other less melodramatic vehicle without running afoul of accounting and auditing standards that would detect such a mechanism. Conversely, to discount such safeguards, standards and practices would be to allege a criminal conspiracy so vast as so to be laughable on its face.”
Ochoa said he believed the reports of misdeeds such as the creation of a slush fund and the illegitimate diversion of revenues from the compressed natural gas sales to bankrupt the clean burning fuel program originated with “folks who are upset that the city ceased selling cheap CNG fuel.”
He said those people are mistaken. He took responsibility for the decision to end the program.
“I have talked with three individuals who have complained about this decision,” he said. “As I explained to these folks, I made this decision based on a confluence of factors: chiefly, the facts that retailing CNG is not a core function of the public works agency and the existence of a private market to fill this need. The public works agency fills potholes and maintains the public right of way, maintains parks and city facilities, collects solid waste, and maintains the city’s fleet. Those are our core functions. Yet, as it sometimes happens with government services, a program can become a legacy program — something that we do because we’ve always done it, even if the original reason why we started doing it has changed. In this case, we likely started selling CNG based on a grant that we received, and because there was a public policy desire at the time to encourage the proliferation of CNG vehicles prior to CNG fuel being widely sold at private gas stations. As the market for retailing CNG expanded, we arguably should have abandoned the retail effort at that time; however, we did not. We simply went on doing what we had always done. The spike in CNG pricing earlier this year brought this issue to a head, and forced us to ask ourselves whether we truly needed to be in this business. The State of California requires the city to have a number of CNG vehicles; however, the state does not require us to retail the fuel that we use for those vehicles. This is evident by the lack of other municipalities retailing CNG. Thus, it truly is a public policy decision as to whether or not government should be present in an industry when there is 1) a functioning private market and 2) no state or federal mandate for the city to provide a service (such as integrated waste management).”
Ochoa said, “The City of Ontario has historically prided itself on operating with a private business mentality. This strategic thinking is what has sustained us over the last 25 years. My decision to cease retailing CNG fuel is a function of this philosophy.”
Ochoa acknowledged shortcomings in the manner in which word of the discontinuation of the compressed natural gas sales reached the public.
“I think I would agree with the folks who I spoke to in their complaint that we did not do a good enough job of giving ample advance notice of the cessation of service,” the city manager said. “While I believe that we gave two weeks’ notice through various media, our users felt that this was too short and should’ve been better promoted at the very least. Our communications team and I have taken this to heart and will do better in the future.”

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