Yakima City Council candidates talk budget deficit, homelessness

With pandemic funding set to end in 2024, the general election could significantly affect how the city addresses its multimillion-dollar shortfall.

a sign for Yakima, Washington

The sign that greets you as you approach Yakima. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

This past year, the Yakima City Council made several decisions on a 4-3 vote.

From allowing a non-resident to participate in the city’s bicycle and pedestrian advisory committee to moving forward on a feasibility study for a regional fire authority as one way to address anticipated budget shortfalls – these issues and several others were decided on a split vote between the nonpartisan Council’s more conservative and more progressive members.

Last week, the Council voted 4-3 to reject a motion to censure Mayor Janice Deccio for calling 911 to ask about right-wing signature-gatherers outside a Walmart. Deccio said she called the police after a constituent voiced concerns about petitioners harassing customers. The story gained national attention among conservative commentators who felt Deccio imposed on petitioners’ First Amendment rights. The mayor said she received hundreds of harassing texts, emails and voicemails since the 911 call.

Generally, Council members Eliana Macias, Danny Herrera, Soneya Lund and Mayor Janice Deccio vote together, while Patricia Byers, Matt Brown and Holly Cousens take the other side on issues before the Council. 

Seats currently held by Macias, Lund, Byers and Cousens are up for election in November. Lund, Byers and Cousens are running again, while Macias is not. Byers, who is seeking a second term in District 3, is running unopposed. 

This election could change the makeup of the Council and potentially change the direction Yakima takes on crucial issues, including how the city will respond to an anticipated multimillion-dollar budget deficit in 2025 and to Yakima’s increasing number of unsheltered people.

Rick Glenn, who is challenging incumbent Lund in District 5, says he sees an opportunity for a Council that leans progressive to transform into one that aligns with conservative principles. 

“We’re going to turn that table to a 4-3 vote from the people who believe money solves all problems to another that says we got to work with people and find other ways to address some of these issues,” said Glenn, a property manager. 

While Macias is not running for another term, a familiar progressive face is in the race: Dulce Gutiérrez was elected in District 1 in 2015, the first election following a federal court order that led to district-based elections. District 1 is one of Yakima’s three Latino-majority districts, but the only one with a seat up for election this year. Gutiérrez will face business owner Leo Roy. 

In District 7, Cousens is seeking a third term on the Council. While she generally votes with its conservative faction, earlier this year she voted with the Council’s progressive members on a Pride Month proclamation affirming LGBTQ+ residents. 

Her challenger is Reedy Berg, a middle school history teacher. Cousens defeated Gunnar Berg, Reedy Berg’s brother, in her first Council election in 2015. 

Yakima District 1 City Council candidates Dulce Gutiérrez and Leo Roy. (Courtesy of the candidates)

Many approaches to tough decisions

During a Council retreat earlier this year, the city’s finance department provided a forecast showing a general fund shortfall of $3.7 million by 2025, increasing to $19.4 million by 2027 if no action is taken. 

In a memo to the Yakima City Council in April, Jennifer Ferrer-Santa Ines, director of finance and budget, was direct about budget issues: The city's 1% year-over-year property tax increase and volatile sales tax collection could not cover expenses, including labor contract cost-of-living increases of 5.5%. 

The anticipated shortfall comes as pandemic-era American Rescue Plan Act federal funding will end in 2024. The city received $26.2 million in federal dollars in 2021 and 2022, with several million used to replace police and fire vehicles. The city also used the federal dollars for a new aquatic center in East Yakima, which had been without a pool for more than 15 years. 

The Yakima City Council is already discussing how to address the looming shortfall. The Council has held seven study sessions this summer and a variety of proposals are on the table. But the new Council being elected in November will make some of the biggest budget decisions. 

Gutiérrez said the budget issue is one reason she decided to pursue another term on the Yakima City Council after several years away. She believes her previous budget experience is needed. 

She doesn’t agree with across-the-board cuts or directing all cuts to one area, such as parks and recreation. Instead, she supports a line-by-line budget examination to see where excess spending could be cut without impacting public services. That could include leaving some vacant positions empty and skipping some employee training. 

“Budget cuts impact [departments] differently. And the way the city is able to provide direct services to the public is impacted differently with each budget cut,” she said. “It’s going to take a major sacrifice by taxpayers and city offices alike to balance out this budget. The most unfair part of this all is city residents are still paying the same taxes and are going to be receiving worse services and less public services directly.”  

Roy, the other District 1 candidate, proposed streamlining city operations and boosting local economic growth. He also said he would promote transparency in budget decisions.

“Collaboration with other stakeholders and long-term financial planning will be essential to address this challenge effectively,” Roy said.  

Yakima District 3 City Council candidate Patricia Byers. (Courtesy of the candidate)

Yakima District 5 City Council candidates Rick Glenn and Soneya Lund. (Courtesy of the candidates)

Several candidates emphasized wanting to balance the budget without excessive cuts to public safety. 

Byers said she would not support closures of public safety facilities, such as the West Yakima fire station as has been proposed, or cuts to police and fire staff. She believes pandemic funding will help cover some deficits and is open to using reserve funds. 

“We must remain alert to unexpected costs and possible avenues of revenue,” she said. “It is likely the budget will remain adjustable over the next two years as we look at ways to better our position.” 

Cousens said she’s also against any cuts to police and fire. She outlined several proposals, including a comprehensive financial review for cost savings or inefficiencies, exploring revenue options such as public/private partnerships and federal and state grants. And she wants to gather community input on budget priorities. 

“It’s important to approach budget shortfalls with a combination of short-term and long-term strategies while ensuring that essential services are protected,” she said. “Collaboration with city departments, city employees, the community and neighboring municipalities can also help identify creative solutions and mitigate the impact of budget challenges.” 

Berg said supporting fire and police is his “main focus” and anticipates making cuts in other areas, such as social services and parks and recreation. He also believes the city needs to revamp regulations to make the city more attractive to prospective businesses that could provide additional revenue. "The less government involvement as far as business, the more enticing," he said. 

Glenn said he believes it is unreasonable to ask residents who are paying more for food, housing and other necessities to take on additional taxes to cover budget deficits. Instead, he supports working to attract businesses to the region that would generate economic activity and additional revenue for the city.

“People don’t exist to serve their government,” Glenn said. “[Government is] not serving the people when they’re taking food out their mouths.” 

Lund said that new taxes and other revenue generation may not be popular, but she believes the public may support such efforts if the Council is transparent about the impact of cutting spending on specific services. 

“You have must-haves and want-to-haves,” she said. “Must-haves are public safety, which are fire and police, those sorts of things. Want-to-haves are like parks, but for a lot of people, parks are also important,” she said. “The want-to-haves are going to get cut more and more to fund the must-haves, [which] doesn’t make for a healthy community.”

Yakima District 7 City Council candidates Reedy Berg and Holly Cousens. (Courtesy of the candidates)

Tackling homelessness

Homelessness has long been a critical election issue for other communities such as Seattle and Spokane. However, increasing unsheltered homelessness — which has become more visible in downtown Yakima — has made it an important issue for the Yakima City Council as well. 

Nearly a third of Yakima County’s 554 unhoused households counted in early 2022 were unsheltered — living outside or in vehicles or abandoned buildings. And 73% of those unsheltered households included those identified as chronically homeless. 

Like other parts of the state, the Yakima Valley is dealing with rising housing costs. In the past several years, city staff have worked to revise codes and make other changes, such as policies to allow for accessory dwelling units, to generate more housing units. Joan Davenport, Yakima’s community development director, told Crosscut previously that adding more housing is crucial to solving homelessness. 

Lund said she’s eager to launch a program to provide a path for unhoused residents dealing with substance abuse and mental illness to get help. The state’s drug possession law emphasizes a treatment option. The plan in Yakima is to divert people arrested for public drug use, who are also homeless, toward the Union Gospel Mission to start triaging that person’s needs. While the Mission is involved in the initial outreach, other mental health and drug-treatment organizations will be involved. 

Lund also notes that another opportunity to reach the homeless would involve addressing crime in downtown Yakima and getting housing and other services for the unhoused who are arrested for misdemeanor crimes. She acknowledges that this won’t solve the problem entirely, but it does focus on a challenging segment of unhoused residents. “The goal is to get these individuals off the streets and into shelter and wrap-around services faster and more effectively,” Lund said. 

Glenn said that in his property management job he’s made efforts to provide housing for low-income residents and even worked with nonprofits, such as Yakima Neighborhood Health Services, that support people experiencing homelessness. 

He believes his experience working with getting people into housing could benefit the Council, and that there need to be targeted solutions rather than mindless spending to address the issue. 

However, he believes police need to address crime in areas where unsheltered residents stay. He thinks people try to blend in with unsheltered residents and commit crimes like shoplifting or drug dealing. 

Glenn, president of the Yakima Valley Landlords Association, said policies that make housing more expensive for landlords such as himself will also make it more expensive for renters, as those costs are often passed down to them. 

Byers said she favors providing shelter or transitional housing with mandatory wrap-around services as “homelessness and substance abuse run together.” She notes that the city recently signed a contract with Comprehensive Healthcare, a mental health services provider, to provide services at Camp Hope, a nonprofit low-barrier shelter on city property. 

As for additional housing, she believes the city’s efforts in recent years have resulted in more housing, particularly an increase in apartment units and smaller, more affordable single-family homes. She said the focus will be to continue finding ways to increase housing units and accessory dwelling units on individual housing lots.  

Cousens said she would like to work on increasing emergency shelter space to provide immediate relief for unsheltered residents and that those shelters should have wrap-around services, including mental health and addiction treatment. However, she also believes short-term efforts should be joined with long-term solutions such as investment in homeless prevention efforts and increasing affordable housing through partnerships with developers. 

Berg, Cousens’ opponent, said he would like to see an ordinance that would address squatting and littering around areas where unsheltered residents stay, but also wants to find ways to get residents in transitional housing and connected to services. He said he would coordinate with nonprofits and others working with people experiencing homelessness to get feedback on best practices. 

Roy said it’s important to recognize that the government doesn’t have to be responsible for every homelessness solution. He said he would focus on partnering with nonprofits, faith-based organizations and businesses to expand support services. 

Both Berg and Gutiérrez believe the city needs to pursue efforts to work with owners of a former lumber mill property — hundreds of acres vacant just outside of downtown Yakima and along Interstate 82 — to build affordable housing. 

Gutiérrez noted that the city has invested about $100 million in building roads and sidewalks around the property and connecting the property to city utilities. While she understands the current property owners can do what they want, she believes the city needs to incentivize building new housing. 

Gutiérrez also noted that during her previous stint on the Council, the city secured a state grant that enabled it to launch a housing action plan that included an ongoing effort to revise and introduce new city codes that allowed for more housing, particularly multifamily units, to be built in the city. 

“Housing is a major need for our community that homeless people are struggling with … but so are low-income people, and so are middle-class families and working-class,” she said.

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