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$300,000 in pay raises proposed for city of Sunnyside's 2009 budget

Sunnyside is looking at a lean budget for 2009, with only $7.9 million proposed for general fund expenditures. That's down more than $400,000 from 2008 and $3.6 million from 2007.

The nine city workers whose jobs were eliminated in 2008 will remain off the city books, including two of the city's four day shift police officers.

Sunnyside's personnel cuts mean that the city's code enforcement budget is slashed by almost half to $282,400, and the recreation budget is cut by $250,000, a reduction of 30 percent. That includes the continued closure of the community center.

The budget was presented yesterday afternoon to the Sunnyside City Council during a special budget session.

Council will hold a budget hearing to gain public comment on Thursday, Nov. 20, at 6:30 p.m. in city council chambers at the Law and Justice building.

Monday's meeting turned to talk of proposed pay raises for city employees. According to one estimate, the combined cost of living increases for the city's 100 employees, plus step pay increases for the 23 eligible employees, would come out to about $300,000,

While union employees agreed to forego vacation buyback, a policy that in the past has been projected to cost the city up to $150,000 annually, Councilwoman Theresa Hancock was concerned that in ongoing negotiations union employees have been offered a 5 percent cost of living increase and a 5 percent step pay hike, meaning some employees will get a 10 percent pay raise in 2009. She noted that staff had not previously revealed that figure to council.

Hancock joined Councilmen Bruce Epps and Jim Restucci in calling for a salary survey so that council could have a better sense of what Sunnyside employees are making compared to other cities.

Without a survey, Hancock and City Manager Eric Swansen agreed that the best guess now is that Sunnyside's entry level employees are likely overpaid, while those on the high end - chiefly Swansen, Finance Director Jordan Arreola and City Attorney Mark Kunkler - are underpaid.

Hancock in particular noted that Sunnyside police sergeants are making in the range of $70,000, which she felt was too high compared to the mid $50,000 range some cities pay their sergeants.

When Swansen said it would take six months to come up with a survey, Hancock suggested that council hold off on offering the pay increases until a study could be finished. She added that if it's found individual employees are underpaid, they then could receive the pay upgrades retroactively.

Swansen and Councilman Bill Gant advised not to pull back on the raises offered to union employees out of concern they may want the vacation buyback. Swansen was also concerned about the possibility of having to go to binding arbitration, while Gant was cautious in wanting to prevent a possible strike that could result from rescinding the offer already made to union employees.

Worse, Fire Chief Aaron Markham indicated fire department employees would consider filing an unfair labor practice action if the offer was rescinded.

That would only leave the possibility of putting a freeze on the wages of the city's non-union employees.

City council members were told yesterday there are only seven non-union employees, though city records show there are 20 employees not represented by unions.

Based on a retroactive pay raise proposal floated earlier this month, which called for a 3 percent cost of living raise for 2008, the 5 percent cost of living increases and 5 percent step pay hikes proposed in 2009 for the non-represented employees would top $70,000.

The 2009 budget proposal also calls for Sunnyside residents to pay on average nearly $13 more per month for utilities. That's based on a 10 percent increase in water, 20 percent increase in sewer, 25 percent increase in garbage and 6 percent increase in an ambulance service fee.

There was good news in that the city held the line on its utility tax rate, keeping at 6 percent. Swansen said that's one of the lowest rates in Yakima County, and compares favorably to the 24 percent utility tax Grandview residents pay.

Following the Nov. 20 budget hearing, the city council is expected to take action on the budget proposal during its Dec. 8 council meeting.

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