Emotional meeting of ECC-Sunnyside councils on merger
The first official public hearing concerning a possible merger of East Carbon and Sunnyside cities drew a full house Tuesday night as Sunnyside residents were informed of their city's intention to place consolidation on the November ballot.
While comments given throughout the public session ran largely in opposition to the merger, Sunnyside officials did pass a resolution to move forward with consolidation proceedings and further discussed the matter with East Carbon's council following their regularly scheduled meeting.
As the public hearing commenced, possible tax increases became a main topic of conversation. Sunnyside residents were told that regardless of whether they joined with East Carbon or not they would be seeing an increase in their water and sewer rates with the possibility of an additional increase via a special tax levy.
The water and sewer increase is almost assured due to the recent finalization of a property re-evaluation at Sunnyside Cogeneration by the Utah State Tax Commission. For the 2011 tax year, the power plant's value dropped from $47.5 million to approximately $32 million, causing Sunnyside to pay back $78,089 to the plant.
According to Sunnyside's figures, the change in property value will cost Sunnyside City, Carbon County, the Carbon County School District and the Carbon County Water Conservancy District $236,691 in total lost revenue for 2011. The state is still deciding if the plant's 2012 value will be assessed at $27 million further dropping the power plant's tax burden. In Sunnyside, the plant is responsible for a large portion of the city's revenue and the shortfall will find its way onto resident utility bills.
"So if taxes and sewer rates are going to be raised anyway, I don't see any benefit in joining the towns," said Sunnyside resident Dale Smith. "I'm going to pay the same amount if I'm East Carbon or Sunnyside."
Sunnyside Mayor Doug Parsons agreed with Smith's assessment, stating "You probably will. You know, you hear some things like, 'We're going to be a ghost town.' Well, if we are going to be a ghost town, whether we are one town or two it doesn't matter."
According to Parsons, the joining of the community's fire departments has been advantageous as officials from both city's agree that their fire force is stronger than it has ever been. The Sunnyside mayor also noted that the community's ability to garner grants because of the department merger has also increased.
However, despite the success seen within the fire department, several city residents could see no reason for consolidation.
"We have been sister cities forever and have never been held hostage with threats the way we have in the past few years," said Karen Andrews, a Sunnyside resident, who made several comments discouraging city consolidation. "Why all of a sudden can we not continue to work as sister cities with joint services like it has been? Why do you have to throw the two cities together for the sake of a few people wanting total control? Being bullied into to this is not what I feel the majority of people want. We are a self sufficient community."
In attendance at the hearing was East Carbon Mayor Orlando LaFontaine, who offered to answer several of the concerns brought forward by Sunnyside residents and posed his own comments in favor of the merger.
"We were told that Sunnyside city was going to have issues budgeting for the ambulance as of June. We stepped forward and said we would give $20- or $30,000 and contrary to what people think about East Carbon City being financially strapped, we haven't raised our taxes in years. We have that flexibility if we wanted to actually raise taxes and we have not done it. Two little cities of this size? For years we have been losing grants. We just lost a huge grant. Here we are in the middle of the desert and we lost a chance at $300,000 because of miscommunication."
The lack of communication LaFontaine referred to stems from a joint Permanent Community Impact Board grand application which Sunnyside removed their name from after they failed to receive what they felt was enough information to assign their name to the project. As Sunnyside removed their name, East Carbon re-applied for the grant on their own, looking to fund a project which would capture an estimated 3 million gallons of water a month from the Grassy Trail Reservoir's second diversion.
LaFontaine's comments prompted immediate disagreement from the Sunnyside council as well as leers and open hostility from many in the audience. While the East Carbon mayor was in the minority, he was not the only citizen in attendance who favored consolidation.
"As I have listened to consolidation for many years, I have spoken to many people and I have done quite a bit of research," said Liz Ferguson, who lives in East Carbon but also pays taxes on property in Sunnyside. "Consolidation can lead to the inter-connecting of our infrastructures and I hope you listen to that word, inter-connection. Because that is connecting with one another. To become one, interwoven. Disconnect is separate, lack of communication or agreement. Think of those two words and think of where we are again here today. I have sat in meetings with Mike Milovich and heard him say many times that if we continue the way we are we are going to lose financially. Duplication of services are not logical in today's economy."
As several more residents questioned the specific amount taxes would increase it became obvious that there are many more questions associated with this issue than answers at the current time. Both East Carbon and Sunnyside have requested information concerning the fate of their individual debt should the cities merge. It is unclear at this point whether said debt will be divided between the towns or if the newly formed municipality would consolidate their payments as well as their debts.
The cities will now exchange financial information and work toward sending ballot information to the Lt. Governor's office concerning the November ballot. Several more public meetings will be held in both areas moving toward the election.
View complete video of the joint council session which followed the public hearing