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Sunnyside council wrestles with budget shortfall

In the last six months of 2011 the city of Sunnyside spent $1.2 million from its general fund reserves.

That's according to information the city council reviewed during a special session this past Tuesday.

As of the end of June 2011, the city had $1.2 million in the general fund, but ended the year with minus $15,527.

The city still retains a $1 million contingency fund that is separate from the general fund.

The depletion of the general fund monies started after the city council this past spring and summer asked police to run full shifts around the clock. Mayor pro tem Don Vlieger said Tuesday that's one reason why police overtime was so high in 2011.

Overtime for all staff within the police department topped $445,000 during 2011, up from $441,000 in 2010.

The total overtime last year for all city employees was more than $530,000.

The city council last year also agreed with a request by the police department to hire additional officers, a crime analyst and purchase four new vehicles.

Add a shortfall of more than $400,000 in the jail fund, and the city's general fund reached the minus column by year's end.

Despite the additional expenditures ordered by council in 2011, Vlieger blamed Sunnyside Finance Director and Deputy City Manager Byron Olson for the shortfall at year's end.

Specifically, he noted a draw down of more than $600,000 in the general fund during the month of December. Olson replied that the funds went down primarily because of the need for general fund dollars to subsidize the jail revenue shortfall at year's end.

A couple of ideas discussed Tuesday night to help balance the 2011-12 budget included a $20 car tab fee that would generate an additional $150,000 for city streets and raising the current 6 percent excise tax on city utilities.

At the suggestion of Deputy Police Chief Phil Schenck and Chief Ed Radder, council on Tuesday night asked staff to start a process in which the city would no longer have its inmates housed in the Yakima County jail.

Schenck said the city would save about $160,000 each year in bed fees by not sending inmates to the county, which charges the city for inmates even if they are held on felony charges.

In addition, council followed suggestions by Schenck and Radder to have legal staff review the possibility of not confirming warrants of inmates held by Yakima County.

The idea is by not confirming the warrants the city isn't charged for the inmates' housing in the county jail. Schenck said the warrant is still valid, though, and could be enforced by police here if the inmate re-enters Sunnyside.

Schenck says he believes no other Lower Valley police departments confirm warrants, and Vlieger said he was told that Grandview does not confirm its warrants with the county.

Olson cautioned council to have further discussions before taking formal action on not confirming warrants.

"We need to make sure council knows that this has the potential for a negative perception in the community," he said.

Council set a Feb. 6 workshop as the date to further consider the warrant issue.

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