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Stormwaters continue brewing in Sunnyside

Will the last person leaving Sunnyside please turn out the lights?

That was in essence the city's future predicted by a parade of local land owners and business people as they testified last night about the city's stormwater assessment.

About 80 people attended the meeting Monday night, as it was standing room only in council chambers at the Law and Justice Building.

Longtime local businessman Pete Sartin said he's been contacted by a developer who wants to bring a business to Sunnyside that will eventually employ 40 people. But the person is waiting to see what the city council does with a stormwater fee system that assesses the bulk of the charges on lands zoned for business and industry.

It's not only about new business that may be lost to the city of Sunnyside, council learned, but about business that's already left town.

Grandview resident and businessman Gary Christensen owns business property in Sunnyside and faces a stormwater assessment of nearly $5,000. He told council he was planning to open a car dealership in Sunnyside, but said he ran into so many hurdles he built a million dollar expansion in Grandview instead.

Losing business to Grandview and other local cities was the same concern Ivan White had.

"Those cities are our competitors in economic development," said White, who has lived here for 35 years. He said the stormwater assessment - which will levy $500,000 in fees for 2009 - has taken away the city's advantage of having the lowest school taxes in the region.

White urged council to take action.

"City staff come and go, but you live here," White told council. "We've had eight city managers in 35 years. You guys are the ones that have to deal with this."

Council also faces the possibility of dealing with a lawsuit over the stormwater fee.

Attorney James Carmody of Yakima represents 21 Sunnyside land owners who have been charged a total of $190,000 in stormwater fees.

Carmody told council that court is not an option the Sunnyside 21 want to pursue just yet. He said the answer on an interim basis is to suspend the stormwater ordinance and return to what the city did last year in assessing a flat $3.75 per month per water meter.

However, City Manager Eric Swansen said 2008's fee arrangement only brought in $97,000 last year and the city needs $500,000 a year to operate its stormwater program. The city is in the second of a five-year window to develop the federally-mandated program.

Finance Director Jordan Arreola said Sunnyside would have to lay off three employees and default on some loans if it did away with the stormwater fees altogether.

Sartin and Councilwoman Theresa Hancock questioned why so much money was needed for the stormwater utility.

Sartin noted that the equipment Sunnyside is charging to the stormwater fund was already here, having been purchased in 2006 for street sweeping. He suggested the high amount being collected for stormwater may be a bid to help the city balance its general budget.

Hancock noted the city spent $30,000 on research with the firm HDR on how to best proceed with the stormwater utility and fee schedule. That research shows the city should expect a cost of about $320,000 for 2009. She said that's the figure other cities are receiving for stormwater.

Swansen said the extra money is needed for costs not included in the HDR study such as excise tax, overhead and equipment rental.

After hearing two hours of public testimony, council asked Swansen to come back as soon as possible with figures showing the impacts of doing away with the new stormwater assessments or cutting stormwater revenues to the $320,000 level recommended by HDR.

Council asked Swansen to also return with impacts and research on exempting pasture land and giving credits to those who have already taken steps to handle stormwater on their property.

Canam, for example, handles its own stormwater. The firm is also an example of a stormwater fee some say is out of whack as the company pays the same fee for its plant as it does for farm land it owns behind the Mid-Valley Mall.

Swansen said the figures council requested won't be ready in time for next Monday's regular council meeting because Arreola will be out of town on a family emergency. Mayor Paul Garcia suggested a special meeting may be needed between the March 23 and April 13 regular council meetings.

One step towards addressing the stormwater situation will be dealt with at the next meeting, though, in that council will look at forming a blue ribbon panel - as suggested by Carmody - of residents, city staff and city council members to come up with a long-term solution.

Whatever Sunnyside does it needs to act soon, cautioned Port of Sunnyside Commissioner Jeff Matson. The port, which has also received a hefty stormwater bill, like the school district and city relies on the first payment of property taxes due on April 30.

"I would encourage you to try and act very quickly, quickly enough so that Yakima County can figure out how to re-bill the property owners," he said. "It's a problem you have to deal with, but it impacts all of the other governing entities in the area when property owners decide they're going to wait before paying taxes."

Time is of the essence in finding a fix, Matson urged, "You have a week, not a month."

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