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Sunnyside residents will soon see an increase in their utility bills

Sunnyside Fire Chief Aaron Markham presented the proposed ambulance utility rate increases at a public hearing during last night's city council meeting.

Markham started with a slideshow that explained how the ambulance utility needs about $1.3 million each year and is subsidized by the city at just over $320,000.

The goal of the utility rate increase is to make the ambulance utility self-sufficient like all other utilities in the city.

The current proposal would change formulas for hotels and motels, lift a limit on the number of employees that can be counted in a single property from 101 to 200 and raise the rate over a two-year period to make up the difference.

Markham gave a list of other ambulance utilities in the state with a rate comparison. Aberdeen charges $18.25 a month per residential unit, while Richland and Kennewick charge about $5.50. The current Sunnyside rate is $4.16 a month.

The proposed increase for 2013 would bring the rate up to $6.60 per month per residential unit, with another rate increase of at least $2.30 planned for 2014 to make the utility entirely self-sufficient.

The hearing was opened to the public after Markham's presentation.

Sunnyside resident Toni Soto asked if the funds would be used properly, citing a misappropriation of utility funds in the past.

Rev. Regner Capener asked about the Medicaid exception that allows Medicaid users to not pay the utility. He wanted to know how the city would be compensated for those patients. Markham explained that more than 60 percent of the patients in Sunnyside are paid for by Medicaid and the city does not get fully reimbursed for transports.

"I'm more than happy to pay the additional two dollars a month," Capener said. He asked if the city could increase rates to cover Medicaid patients and make sure the utility is fully paid. Interim City Manager Frank Sweet told him that is the ultimate goal of the rate increases.

Capener then asked if the service could be privatized and would be able to operate profitably. Markham explained that the prior ambulance company had left "in the middle of the night" and left the city with no coverage. He said part of Franklin County may be losing ambulance service because the private companies are not willing to cover the areas due to a lack of profits.

Markham also said having the fire department and ambulance utility together means that the city has dual-trained firefighters and more coverage overall.

Sunnyside resident Marvin Meyer stood to ask why Yakima has private services that are successful and if those services were doing something different that could be applied to Sunnyside's service.

Markham said there are more private insurance carriers in Yakima and a lower percentage of Medicaid patients.

Meyer wanted to know why the rates need to go up so suddenly. Markham explained how the study determined that the ambulance service was being subsidized by the city and explained how the split is made.

Deputy Mayor Don Vlieger spoke to address the proposed utility rate formula for hotels and motels, saying that 50 percent is a reasonable occupancy rate but assuming double-occupancy is way off, as most hotels serve people on business who each take a single room.

Vlieger also said that as an enterprise fund, the ambulance utility needs to pay for itself. He said he wanted the rates to increase to the full amount in 2013 instead of a gradual increase over two years. He asked Markham to bring back a fully funded proposal along with the two-year proposal when the utility rate goes up for a council vote.

Vlieger also questioned if all units in the city are paying the utility rate. He said he suspects that many rental units are not paying the rate. Council members and Interim City Manager Frank Sweet agreed. Sweet said ideas on how to make sure the entire city was properly being assessed would be discussed.

Markham read one last letter into the record from Diamond Management, Inc. of Bellingham. The letter, written by the owner of Willowpark Apartments, Gene Bowman, argued that ambulance service should not be a public utility and asked why it is being subsidized by taxes in Sunnyside.

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