election 2019 logo elex

Sunnyside has seen some economic growth in recent years with craft beverage businesses and even a large mushroom farm popping up.

But the improving economy has yet to erase the financial crunch this city of more than 16,000 people has experienced.

According to a state audit, the city overspent its budget for five funds last year: water, sewer, garbage, public safety tax and general information technology

The city increased its utility tax by 53 percent, hiking the average monthly water, sewer and garbage bill from $109 to $128.

The city received a similar audit this year.

Although the economy has seen some improvement, empty storefronts still dot the downtown core and many street and other city infrastructure improvements are needed.

Strengthening the city’s financial footing is probably the biggest challenge the City Council will face in coming years.

There are two contested races on the council. Incumbent Julia Hart is facing former Councilman Mike Farmer for position 5 while incumbent Craig Hicks is squaring off with Betty Lynn Garza for Position 7.

Incumbent Jim Restucci is unopposed for Position 6.

Council members serve four-year terms and are paid $400 a month. The mayor — appointed by the council — is paid $600 a month, while the deputy mayor is paid $500 a month.

We asked candidates in contested races four questions. Their answers are below.

Garza did not respond to several phone calls and emails seeking an interview.

Position 5

What is the city’s biggest challenge and how would you address it?

Julia Hart: “Our biggest challenge is bringing more businesses to town, which in turn increases revenues, which can be used to improve streets and sidewalks in our residential area, expand safety services and help improve our recreation opportunities for youth. We need to fund our Transportation Improvement District — which in Sunnyside may amount to a vote of the people regarding the raise of our city sales tax, by a minimum percentage.”

Mike Farmer: “Budget. We have drastically overspent in the city. They drained a several million-dollar reserve fund to over just a few thousand over the past few years. We have to start spending what we have, not what we want. Things have to be prioritized. Each individual expense in each department has to be looked at.”

What in your background gives you the edge over your opponent?

Julia Hart: “My innovative approach to situations and challenges facing the city gives me an edge in that I am not caught up in the traditional ‘We have always done it this way’ trap. I followed the Sunnyside city government for years as a journalist and served as a City Council member in Mabton during the late ’70s.”

Mike Farmer: “I have been on the council two different times. I have almost 12 years of council experience. My first eight years we build up a huge reserve fund. And my second term on council we maintained that reserve fund and we didn’t have to raise taxes. We were careful with what we spent and where we spent it.”

Are there ways the city could operate more efficiently? If so, how?

Julia Hart: “We are looking at all our current policies and procedures seeking every avenue to ensure we’re operating as effectively as possible and we have made great strides in oversight and internal controls. As for as our budget, we have adopted cost allocation budget planning, spreading actual costs of expenditures over the various departments and holding them to managing within those budgets.”

Mike Farmer: “I have been away from the city for several years. I’m not in the know of the day-to-day operations. There’s no way I can give a clear answer until I get in and look at how the money is being spent.”

What would you make your priority?

Julia Hart: “My priority has been to create a contingency fund that can sustain the city in case of emergencies. We have already put into place a process to build this plan and I am excited to see it grow as we continue to provide for the safety and health of our community.”

Mike Farmer: “Fixing the budget. As with many municipalities, we need to be business-friendly. We need to make the permitting process easier. We need to bring in more business. Not only will we get the tax part of it, but we’ll get more residents in town. We just need to be more inviting.”

Position 7

What is the city’s biggest challenge and how would you address it?

Craig Hicks: “I believe the city’s biggest challenge is lowering cost of services while keeping the quality of services at a high level. I am in favor of a 2 percent transportation benefit district sales tax increase.”

What in your background gives you the edge over your opponent?

Craig Hicks: “I served 20 years in the military and learned to work within a budget and have served the city for two terms on the City Council.”

Are there ways the city could operate more efficiently? If so, how?

Craig Hicks: “We could bring more business that the city wants, increasing our sales tax revenue, rebuilding our general budget. Take a good look at what is being charged for residents and companies and adjust so everyone is sharing services at a fair rate for the amount they use.”

What would your make your priority?

Craig Hicks: “My priority would be getting a 2 percent transportation benefit district sales tax on the ballot for the city to vote on. This would increase our general budget by helping cover the cost of providing (street improvements) for the town.”

Reach Phil Ferolito at pferolito@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @philipferolito