Incumbent Yakima County Commissioner Ron Gamache addressed members of the Sunnyside Republican Club Friday morning about the upcoming commissioner election.
Since the Toppenish man took office nearly four years ago he has been focusing on economic development in the Lower Valley. A member of three different economic development boards, New Vision, the Yakima Valley SEID Board and the Resource Conservation Development Commission, Gamache has been on the front lines of economic development. He said as a member of the SEID board he has had a hand in Lower Valley projects, including the nursery in Mabton and the Wal-Mart distribution center in Grandview.
The Resource Conservation Development Commission has assisted in developing the Toppenish Highway tourist radio station.
Gamache has also favored the restructuring of the county's permitting and planning departments to develop a one-stop-shop for those looking to develop or build in the county. He said the county is offering a money-back guarantee to ensure that permits and plans are processed in a timely manner.
A touchy subject, the new county jail, which is currently under construction in Yakima, Gamache addressed club members' concerns saying that he did not make the decision in a vacuum. Lower Valley sites in Sunnyside, Grandview and Toppenish were considered by a citizen siting committee, but ultimately, after the county purchased land in Toppenish that didn't have water rights. Yakima was chosen as the site for the new jail. County Commissioner Jesse Palacios, who was also at the Republican Club meeting, said that they were told by Toppenish City officials through the process that the land had water rights. But there are two different kinds of water rights. The land had rights for how much water flow was allowed in a year, but now for how much water could be pumped in a day, said Gamache.
The Yakama Nation brought the water issue to the county commissioners' attention during the SEPA process.
Gamache added that he believes the Yakima fairgrounds location was the best for the county. Although one of his opponents vows to stop construction on the jail if elected, Gamache said stopping the jail project would cost the county $5 million.
Palacios explained that bonds were sold to build the facility. If the county were to stop the project the bonds would still have to be repaid.
"The revenue from the jail is supposed to pay for the bonds," he added.
Since 1994, the county has been able to gain $53 million from jail bed sales, said Gamache. Looking to the future he said it will cost the county $27 million just to house its own population.
"The bottom line is we had to build anyway. This way we don't have to pay for it," said Gamache, who agreed that although the jail numbers and costs are just projections, he felt it best to be prepared.
Palacios said that the commissioners would have been criticized either way. He said if they didn't build the jail when they had the opportunity they would have been criticized in the future when the need was great.
"In the long run I believe it will save us money," Palacios added.
Gamache said that the siting committee was down to one site in Sunnyside that looked feasible, but the cost to purchase the property and help Sunnyside with a sewer system upgrade was not cost effective.
"I think that's (the sewer system) part of the reason Sunnyside wanted us to come-as a solution to their problem," said Gamache.
Former Sunnyside City Councilman Chad Werkhoven further questioned Gamache on the jail project, asking why the county commissioners were not at a meeting billed as a public hearing, which was held in Sunnyside.
Werkhoven said that the citizen siting committee was on-hand, but made it very clear that they had no intention of siting the jail in Sunnyside.
"It turns out it wasn't a public hearing, it was a dog and pony show," said Werkhoven.
Gamache countered that the siting committee was part of the process of selecting a site for the facility.
"You don't have them do your thinking for you," answered back Werkhoven, who added that statistics are like eggs, you can cook them any way you want to.
"It was our understanding here in Sunnyside, that it would have been very cost effective," said Dr. Randy Schuler, who also attended the meeting.
At the meeting Gamache was also asked if he supports the Black Rock Creek Reservoir project.
"We've been there all the way," said Gamache.
Although there aren't any county funds to spare to support the project at this point, Gamache said $110,000 has already been given to the project. Yakima and Benton counties contributed $100,000 to the feasibility study of the project and $10,000 was given by the county to start a website to inform residents on the project.
"Personally, I've given funds to the Black Rock Creek project," Gamache added.