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City Council withdraws support of outreach program

Councilwoman Bengie Aguilar wanted to know where the Sunnyside City Council stood on its support of the Lower Yakima Valley Rural Enterprise Community (REC) Outreach Program. Well, she got her answer at this past Monday night's Council meeting.

In a 3-2 vote, with Councilman Bruce Ricks not casting his vote on the matter, the City Council opted to withdraw its support of the community outreach program.

Councilman Alex de la Cruz joined Aguilar in voting to continue city support of the program. Mayor Ed Prilucik, Mayor Pro-tem Mike Farmer and Councilman James Restucci voted in favor of withdrawing the city's support.

Councilman Don Vlieger was not in attendance at Monday night's meeting, having received an excused absence the week prior.

Aguilar, who also sits on the REC board of directors, has headed up the community outreach effort for the non-profit agency. She also was instrumental in forming the partnership with the REC, City of Sunnyside, and the Sunnyside School District in joining together to hold the meetings.

Aguilar brought the issue before the Council last night following recent discussions the governing body has had in trying to obtain all remaining money from the REC to help fund maintenance of SunnyView Park.

de la Cruz admitted he wasn't familiar with the outreach program, but wondered what the city's financial stake was. Interim City Manager Mark Kunkler said the city's financial contribution for participating in the program is minimal, consisting mainly of compensatory time and in some cases overtime pay. City staff members, including police officers and firemen, have been in attendance frequently at the community outreach meetings.

Kunkler clarified a concern of de la Cruz, saying if the Council opted to not continue its support of the outreach program, then none of the city employees would be compensated for their involvement with the meetings.

Farmer praised Aguilar for her efforts, but wondered if the money couldn't be spent for more useful programs. Farmer said the meetings he attended had very few people in attendance. He also talked to two families, who had attended past outreach meetings, and they told him they wouldn't attend again "because it was a waste of time."

Farmer asked Aguilar what the $15,000 allocated for the outreach programs was used for and if the city could be compensated for its financial expenditures.

"I think the concept is excellent. I really do," said Farmer. "I am concerned about (how) the money is being spent."

Aguilar said the money is used for postage, supplies and other needed items in getting the word out about the meetings. Aguilar also said she can ask if the city could be financially compensated, but said it was her initial understanding the city's contributions were in-kind.

Aguilar said the outreach program has tried to gear its presentations around what was identified in a community survey as major concerns.

"The program is kind of evolving," said Aguilar.

Aguilar defended the reason for community members not attending meetings. Aguilar said some meetings were held at the wrong times throughout the year. She added not all meetings were sparsely attended. In May 2003, 40 people attended a meeting in the downtown area, which she said greatly benefited the Sunnyside Housing Up! rehabilitation program. Aguilar said the meetings have been averaging between 20 to 25 people.

"It depends on the area and the time of the meeting," said Aguilar.

In response to a question from Sunnyside citizen M'Liss Bierlink, Aguilar said the door-to-door efforts to inform people about the meetings reaches between 300 to 400 homes. Bierlink said it was unfortunate that only 20 to 25 people on average were attending the meetings.

Prilucik said he felt the outreach program was going into too many different directions, instead of focusing on a few concerns. Prilucik also felt the REC would do better to give the outreach dollars to the police department to help the agency expand its community outreach programs. The mayor also expressed concern about the sustainability of the REC outreach program.

Dr. Jim Stevens of Sunnyside heralded the efforts of Aguilar with the outreach program, but said he felt the remaining REC money should be used for other programs. Stevens suggested using the REC money to fund the efforts of Danny Mendoza to build a skate park at SunnyView Park. Stevens said he felt the skate park could help unite the communities of Sunnyside and Grandview.

Councilman Restucci was equally impressed with the purpose of the outreach program, but said he felt the meetings, some of which he had attended, weren't very well organized. Restucci expressed concerns about the financial management of the REC program. Restucci said he has tried to get in contact with Yakima County grants manager Steve Hill over the last two weeks to obtain information on the program and hasn't heard anything back yet.

"I am just worried about who is running the show right now," said Restucci.

. Mike Kantman can be contacted at (509) 837-4500, or email him at mkantman@eaglenewspapers.com

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