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Stormwater sticker shock hits Sunnyside

The Sunnyside City Council got an ear full last night as property owners sounded concerns over the city's stormwater fees on their property taxes.

Those most adversely affected by the fees are property owners with lands zoned for industrial uses. These property owners were not previously assessed the stormwater fees because the city did not have a way to properly bill them.

This year the city has contracted with Yakima County to have the fees on industrial and business parcels added to property tax bills.

Pete Sartin told council at Monday night's meeting that some of the stormwater fees he's paying are 50 percent more than the taxes on those same properties. All told, he's on the hook for nearly $6,000 in stormwater fees.

Some of his property is just bare ground, Sartin said, with no threat of run-off. To add insult to injury, he's being charged the stormwater fee for his cold storage facility even though he says he had to build a stormwater drainage system when he erected the building in the first place.

"The stormwater fee, it's maybe a necessary evil but I don't think there was much good judgment used in the way that it is assessed," Sartin said.

City Manager Eric Swansen acknowledged that the fee amounts are based only on the size of the properties and their zoning. There was no accounting done for whether the properties are developed or have pavement that would cause more run-off, or whether it is pasture that would result in little or no run-off.

He said cost was a constraint in the stormwater fee schedule a consultant provided for the city, noting the city did not have the resources to individually check out each property.

Swansen said property owners should bring in their stormwater bills to city hall to determine whether the fees were assessed accurately.

Councilwoman Theresa Hancock said citizens shouldn't have to wait and bring in their paperwork. Council passed the stormwater revision and council needs to deal with it sooner rather than later, she feels.

"I personally think this is a nearly emergency situation with some of these bills," she said, noting the Port of Sunnyside is facing a $75,000 stormwater bill. Hancock said she knows other individual property owners who have had $4,000 and $5,000 added to their tax bills. There was one report of a property owner in the city limits who has a $40,000 stormwater fee. "We as a city imposed this tax and we have a responsibility to do a good job, really get after this," she said. "It's a surprise to me how this came out."

Councilman Bill Gant added that all properties should be reviewed, with the owners' names omitted during the evaluation process so that all get equal consideration.

Mayor pro tem Jim Restucci said the situation is so bad that one dairy farmer with a $75,000 stormwater fee joked it would be cheaper for him to pave his land and put his cows on roller skates than to face the fee he's been assessed.

Hancock called on the city to make sure that all these stormwater fees being assessed are in fact designated for the stormwater utility the city will have to install due to a federal mandate. Currently, two city street employees are paid out of the stormwater fund to help Sunnyside make up a budget shortfall.

Council will take up the stormwater fee subject during its next regular meeting on Monday, March 9.

Restucci, for one, hopes for a clearer outcome than the hodge-podge of high stormwater fees on pasture lands.

"Something that's missing from this is the human element," he said. "It has to pass the common sense test."

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