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Tough choices ahead in drafting 2013 city budget

Would residents of Sunnyside accept a 20 percent increase in utility rates if it meant fewer city employees would lose their jobs?

Members of the Sunnyside City Council were given that as an option at last night's budget meeting, but despite a large crowd that included many off-duty police officers, the public was not allowed to voice opinions on the subject.

Interim City Manager Frank Sweet started the discussion by telling council that $600,000 to $700,000 of the $1 million in the city's contingency fund would be used to balance the city's 2012 budget. He said the money was put aside for emergencies and the emergency is here.

Sweet then provided the council four options for balancing the 2013 budget and asked the council to tell staff what direction to go. All four options include an increase in utility taxes, starting with raising the current 6 percent tax on utility bills to 26 percent. Despite the increases in revenue, cuts would also need to be made and all four options included the same cuts.

Sweet's proposal for budget cuts is the elimination and/or changing of six positions on city staff.

The cuts would eliminate the deputy police chief and deputy fire chief positions, although those two employees would be able to stay on staff in a reduced role. Sweet also proposed cutting two detective positions and combining the crime analyst position with the police administrative assistant position. The city hall position of administrative assistant would be combined with the city planner position.

Because of attrition and a delay in filling vacant positions, only two employees would lose their jobs. Sweet said the plans would cut administrative positions while keeping much-needed patrol officers on the streets.

The proposed cuts would save the city $790,400 a year in salary and benefits.

"This isn't easy, this is difficult," said Sweet as he stated the choices the council needed to make.

"I didn't cause this problem. I'm promoting a fix to make this work to make this community grow," he continued. "It's not easy to do these things. A lot of people are upset. They're going to be upset. You guys are in a difficult spot to have to decide what option or a hybrid option or something totally different that you would like to pursue."

He asked for council to offer suggestions and said staff would put all suggestions together and create another budget and hold another meeting.

Sweet did not offer copies of the suggested budgets and options to the public, but said the full document would be made available to the public before the budget is adopted. He also promised that citizens would have the opportunity to comment on the budget.

Sweet reminded the council that the budget must be adopted by the end of the year. He did not recommend that council hold a meeting on Christmas, but said they would if it was the council's desire.

Councilman Nick Paulakis started the discussion by addressing smaller line items, saying they add up quickly in drafting a budget.

Suggestions made by Paulakis included lowering phone costs, shortening the time the swimming pool is open, limiting overtime, no cost of living adjustments, making do with less equipment, turning off lights on tennis courts and selling the Monson property.

"I'm absolutely not for cutting people," said Paulakis. "Something made of steel, ok, I have no problem with that. Or wood, or plastic or whatever it is. But I'm against it for people."

On the revenue side, he noted that when the city hired new police officers the public indicated a willingness to raise utility taxes. He also suggested implementing a car tab fee.

Deputy Mayor Don Vlieger also suggested a number of tweaks to the budget, including reducing checking fees, council travel allowances, not hiring a city attorney, eliminating the fire department wellness program, reducing ammunition for police and reducing street lighting.

His suggestion to cut off general fund transfers to the street fund were met with an explanation from Sweet that the majority of the 2013 budget for streets came from a grant and Vlieger's proposal would eliminate two thirds of the street fund budget.

Councilwoman Theresa Hancock noted that many of Vlieger's proposals were one-time fees that would not be applicable to the next budget. She told the council that she didn't want to push off the hard decisions to the next council.

"We are out of money," she said. "I don't really want to cut positions or raise fees altogether. It's not in my make-up and not in what I like to do. But also not in my make-up and not in what I like to do is push this off to the next council because it's a controversial thing and will cost us politically. I'm going to take my lumps politically and do what I think I need to do for the city of Sunnyside."

Hancock also noted that the city has not raised utility taxes in years, but she felt a 20 percent increase would not be good for the city and commerce in the city. Mayor Mike Farmer agreed that such a dramatic raise may send the wrong message to businesses looking to move to town.

A study of the utility taxes around the Lower Valley provided this morning shows that Sunnyside's utility tax of 6 percent for garbage, water and sewer is significantly lower than most surrounding cities. Grandview's tax is 40 percent for garbage, 24.2 percent for water and 6 percent for sewer. Granger's taxes are 36 percent across the board. Toppenish has 23 percent taxes. Wapato's taxes are at 33 percent and Zillah at 32 percent.

Councilman Jim Restucci asked the city to make certain there were no more funds available elsewhere before making any staff cuts. He also noted that the city is already working on a tight budget and when half the budget is personnel costs the city must expect to make cuts in personnel.

Restucci also argued that the city can save more money through technology, but admitted the changes he wants the city to make would not affect the current budget.

The meeting was adjourned after each council member had spoken despite an agenda item that indicated public comment would be taken. The audience immediately objected, but Farmer told them the meeting was adjourned.

Questioned after the meeting, Farmer said that while the meeting was a continuation of the public hearing, public comment was not guaranteed.

The council decided the next budget meeting will be held this Thursday, Dec. 20, at 6:30 p.m. at the Law and Justice Center. Sweet said that at least two more meetings would be required to finish the budget.

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