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Sunnyside Council's plan is to refund stormwater payments

After repealing a stormwater fee ordinance last month that some considered unfair, the city council last night took the next step in agreeing to refund the $30,000 or so in fees that have already been collected to date.

Finance Director Jordan Arreola said Monday night the city is pursuing options for getting the money returned. One possibility might be to work with Yakima County, which the city initially contracted with to assess the fee starting this year.

Councilwoman Theresa Hancock said a first step towards deciding what the eventual fee structure should be is narrowing down what it actually costs the city to run a stormwater program.

"Where we ended up was way too high, but we have to get to a realistic number," Hancock said of a stormwater budget that was originally expected to total $500,000 this year.

James Carmody, a Yakima-area attorney, represents several business and industrial landowners in the city. He said the group applauds the move to refund the money collected. Like Hancock, he also called on the city to revisit the actual stormwater budget before moving forward on a new rate system.

Currently there is just $16,000 left in the stormwater fund. City Manager Eric Swansen said Sunnyside will at some point need to borrow money from the general operating funds - known as an interfund loan - in order to pay the stormwater bills.

The city eventually wants to implement a new fee structure and, towards that end, council last night also approved a move to form a stormwater rate setting advisory committee, formerly known as a blue ribbon citizen's committee.

Councilman Tom Gehlen cast the lone dissenting vote against the committee, which will be appointed by Mayor Paul Garcia.

"I object to a committee that will not reflect a majority of our constituents. This will be heavy on the side of the minority and I don't think they have the interests of the majority," Gehlen said of the committee, which will likely consist of mostly business and industrial property owners.

Councilman Bill Gant agreed, "A lot of times the people who want to be on these (committees) have a vested interest. That can be mitigated by appointing a neutral facilitator."

In joining the majority in approving the committee, Garcia noted, "We can't tell whether they are going to be biased. Council will make the final decision (on the new stormwater rate)."

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