Sunnyside Mayor Doug Parsons listens to points made by East Carbon Mayor Orlando LaFontaine.
After two months of canceled sessions and subsequent rescheduling, East Carbon and Sunnyside officials came together Monday night to remedy a funding crisis concerning the area's ambulance service and to hash out a joint course of action for merging the cities via November's general election.
Continued pressure from state funding bodies such as the Permanent Community Impact Board (CIB) over duplicate services, along with dwindling resources and a shrinking population base have pushed the merger issue toward a public vote once again. East Carbon and Sunnyside residents voted down a proposed consolidation in 2004 amid hostile hyperbole from residents in both towns.
While long standing differences have kept the cities apart, there are stark issues at hand which could trump emotional matters such as the city's post-merger name. Chief among said issues is the survival of the Sunnyside Ambulance Service, which allows for swift medical attention and transportation in a community 30 miles from the nearest hospital.
"I have been on the ambulance service for 15 years," said Sunnyside Council Member Kelly Maynes during a previous session. "And I frequently see people who would not be alive today if the ambulance wasn't around."
The service is threatened by the possibility of losing more than $100,000 in tax revenue due to a property tax re-evaluation at Sunnyside Cogeneration. The situation has not been finalized by state auditors as of press time, but Sunnyside officials are preparing for the possibility of a big hit.
To insure the public safety of citizens in the eastern county, officials from both cities agreed to enter the ambulance's operating budget into an enterprise fund which will be balanced by the service's revenue, Carbon County funding and payments from East Carbon and Sunnyside. By funding in this manner, the ambulance will not have to make any changes to the current license but will gain the necessary operating capital to remain fiscally solvent.
While city officials were able to apply a quick patch to this financial problem, the larger issue of consolidation must be voted upon by the public. Coming into the joint session, East Carbon officials voiced issues concerning the slow rate at which the proposed consolidation was moving forward in Sunnyside.
"It's been weeks and weeks that we have been trying to get a meeting together," said East Carbon City Mayor Orlando LaFontaine. "We are stuck right now, even with our grant writing, we are stuck until we find out what is going to happen between these cities. We are ready to put this on the ballot right now. We are only waiting for you."
Citizens in both towns must consent to the merger. Both cities must pass resolutions outlining their plan for consolidation before vote. Additionally, matters of city inventory along with a myriad of other details must be processed. East Carbon officials contend that work on these matters be started immediately.
"I have told you, we will not pass a resolution until we have had public input from our residents," said Sunnyside Mayor Doug Parsons, directly addressing LaFontaine's comment. "And we also said that we did not want to move forward until we had spoken with the CIB."
Just before the joint session, Sunnyside had met with CIB officials to discuss their outstanding loans. According to Parsons, the city will be looking at changes in their payment structure, with the possibility of extending the term of the loans to adjust for a smaller population. When LaFontaine and East Carbon Council Member David Maggio began asking why Sunnyside did not discuss the possibility of having the loans forgiven, Parsons reacted.
"Don't push us," he said. "I will do a 180-degree turn on this. Right now you're pushing."
According to East Carbon City Attorney Jeremy Humes, the vote could take place in one of two ways. Either the cities both pass resolutions which outline a merger, or a petition is submitted to the state with signatures from 10 percent of the area's residents. However, if the measure were to come forward through petition, city officials would have only 45 days to draft a consolidation proposal.
As the room cooled, talk turned to the issues which plagued the failed 2004 vote, agreeing that lies and political fluff ran rampant prior to the vote. In '04 the majority of citizens favored the merger 356 - 323, however to combined the cities a majority must be met in both cities. Sunnyside residents voted down the proposition nearly 2-1.
"Last time it was dirty," continued Parsons. "I don't want to see that happen again."
While Sunnyside's council has remained non-committal concerning the merger, East Carbon officials are publicly in favor of the move.
"Last time there were lies and there was Sundraco," said Maggio. "When that guy stood up and recommended naming the town Sundraco, that was the end right there. We can have the area be known as East Carbon with three subdivisions, Dragerton, Sunnyside and Columbia. We all know the Sunnyside Park is always going to be the Sunnyside Park. What are we going to call it? East Carbon Park East?"
Along with merger talks, Mayor Parsons pushed throughout the session for the cities to work toward forming their own service district in case the measure fails once again. By creating a district, the cities could still have the ability to operate and tax for public safety as a single entity.
"There is always the possibility that even if this merger is on the ballot, there won't be a consolidation," said Parsons.
While the group stipulated to the merit of a second course of action, East Carbon officials were leery of spending time and money on a district measure that would be moot if the cities do in fact join. They also took issue with conducting a myriad of public hearings between now and November.
As the session closed, members of both councils agreed to move toward a merger, or at least to see if that is indeed what their residents want.
"Look at what we had to go through to join our fire departments," said East Carbon Council Member Barbara Robinett, who manages the Sunnyside Ambulance Service. "Look how well that has turned out. It was a step in the right direction and we need to continue forward."