Readers put prison as top story of 2009

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Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

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Economic issues contributed to the closure of several businesses in the Walla Walla area, including Luscious by Nature, during 2009.

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Budget problems forced Valley Transit to increase its fares and to ask voters for an increase in the sales tax to support its services. The vote on the issue will be in February.

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College Place School District tried twice to get voters to approve a proposal to rebuild Davis Elementary School.

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U-B FILE PHOTO: Demolition of the Blue Mountain Mall in Walla Walla halted in its tracks. The mall was later sold at auction, but problems remain.

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The Walla Walla County Public Health Department's Harvey Crowder shows freshly unboxed adult flu vaccine from the refrigerated storage units, in the background, at the Fairgrounds Community Building on the morning of the first day of mass flu vaccinations.

The song says "money makes the world go 'round." It also dominates the voting for the Top 10 stories of 2009.

The overwhelming majority of stories had strong economic components. Everything from the potential loss of jobs due to a prison-closure study to the reality of local business closures to the sad state of the Blue Mountain Mall flashed dollars signs. The possibility of losing the local Department of Licensing office was due to the state dealing with budget issues.

Valley Transit's budget issues forced its board to put a bond issue on the ballot that may decide its fate. And the city of Walla Walla is considering an increase in utility taxes to rebuild the failing infrastructure.

Here are recaps on how local readers ranked the Top 10 stories:


Employees at the Washington State Penitentiary started the year with bad news. Then came even more reason to worry.

First came layoffs as state officials struggled to slash spending. But starting in July even more cuts were in the cards.

Acting on orders from the Legislature, the Office of Financial Management contracted for a study to find out how to eliminate 1,580 Department of Corrections beds. Although all state prisons were to be looked at, the penitentiary's old main institution was an obvious target due to its age.

Local officials quickly formed a task force to argue Walla Walla County's case. The prison had already taken its share of cuts, they said, and more layoffs would harm the local economy in ways that were out of proportion compared to larger counties.

When released in October, the draft report listed closure of the main institution as one of the top options, but with a condition. That being that $41 million be spent to build new facilities at the prison.

As 2010 begins, the focus will now shift to Olympia, where legislators will decide the next step.

22Walla Walla's unofficial recession motto may be "slower in, slower out," but it took no time in 2009 before economic hardship surfaced with local businesses.

The New Year began with the closure of five restaurants -- 26brix, Luscious by Nature, Destination Grill at the Depot, Pine Street Diner and Caravaggio. The latter re-opened later in the year.

Whether the others were victims of the recession, a crowded market or operational issues was unclear. However, the closures came within the first two weeks of the month in the height of the worst recession since the 1930s.

Hardship continued throughout the year with layoffs and reconfigurations at numerous businesses. Manufacturing firms Key Technology and Nelson Irrigation were among those that laid off workers, according to the Port of Walla Walla. Retailers Rex and Gottschalks both closed their doors.

State budgets made the employment picture even worse with cuts proposed at the Washington State Penitentiary.

Walla Walla Regional Labor Economist Arum Kone said in September the community had yet to hit bottom and will take years to recover, given the slow pace of annual job creation.

Meanwhile, consumers found more and more ways to pinch pennies -- from clipping coupons to planting their own gardens.

•••

Area residents put economic woes aside in August to secure passage of a bond proposal that will bring the city a new police station.

The Walla Walla Police Department is now in the preliminary stages of developing the new site, which will hold a new 28,000-square-foot facility at Second Avenue and Moore Street, at a cost of no more than $11.6 million to taxpayers.

About 62 percent of voters were in favor of the bond, giving the department a comfortable victory when a 60 percent super-majority was required for passage.

The bond will pay for the relocation of police headquarters from the basement of City Hall, where it has been stationed for 101 years.

City police officials carried no expectations as they anticipated election results. But the overwhelming support for the bond sent a clear message to the department on the value of the force in the community, and the urgent need to move the department into a facility suitable for its size and demands.

The latest on the police department project is online at wwpolicestation.com.

•••

It didn't take long for the wheels to come off plans to close Walla Walla's Department of Licensing office.

When the news surfaced on Jan. 15 that the local office was among 25 slated to be shut as part of a cost-cutting move local folks were quick to react. The prospect of being forced to drive to Kennewick to do business sparked a barrage of calls, letters and e-mails to local officials and legislators.

The department announced on Jan. 26 the closure would be postponed for at least 18 months. Then on Christmas Eve DOL spokesman Brad Benfield said that prospect was also off the table.

"I have confirmed that my agency is not planning to close the Walla Walla drivers licensing office," he said.

•••

Faced with impending cuts to services because of an $800,000 deficit, Valley Transit raised its bus fares -- tripling some -- and is now in the process of asking voters to double its sale tax funding from .3 to .6 percent.

In the fall of 2009, Valley Transit board members approved asking voters for an additional three-tenths of a percent in local sales-tax charges. If approved by voters in February, the current sales tax of 8.3 percent would climb to 8.6 percent.

Valley Transit is a 30-year-old public transportation agency funded throughout most of the last three decades by a voter-approved three-tenths of a percent sale taxes charge and the now defunct Washington State Motor Vehicle Excise Tax.

Valley Transit officials said the current $800,000 deficit is due, in part, to the loss of the motor vehicle excise tax and the projected loss of federal grants due to recent changes in the grant qualification process.

•••

A slumped economy may have outweighed the need to rebuild the city's only public elementary school in 2009. A February bond proposal to rebuild Davis Elementary for $23 million garnered a majority of about 55 percent, but not enough to meet the super-majority thresh-hold of 60 percent of voters in favor of the project to secure passage.

College Place Public Schools leaders, however, were encouraged by the strong numbers, and agreed to try for the same bond again in May. A series of awareness events, including a fundraiser at a McDonald's restaurant, and a movie night at one of its schools, followed in the coming months.

But time did not work in the district's favor, with numbers holding about steady as voters turned out in May. The $23 million project was again rejected, despite the 55 percent of voters once again in support.

At its core, the project would have completely rebuilt Davis, a more than 100-year-old school that is currently a mishmash of additions and old buildings dating back to the 1950s. Improvements would have also been made to Meadowbrook Intermediate once state matching money was secured.

•••

The mall ended the year as it began -- in a pile of rubble.

It appeared the once thriving shopping mall might be on the road to recovery with a notice of foreclosure and sale on the courthouse steps. But the foreclosure was on a second mortgage on the property and the ownership remained largely unchanged, according to city officials.

City planners were optimistic that construction would commence after a more than eight-month lag left the property in a state of demolition with Sears and Shopko operating among the chaos.

But the project fell into further disarray when the Western Washington real estate developer helping to fund the project was accused of misleading investors by selling unsecured promissory notes and unregistered securities.

King County resident Michael R. Mastro, one of the developers behind the original proposal to convert Walla Walla's languishing shopping mall into a destination retail hub, misrepresented information to investors and in some cases omitted it completely, according to the Washington State Department of Financial Institutions.

The case came on the heels of the 84-year-old's thrust into bankruptcy.

•••

About 1,200 doses of adult seasonal flu vaccine were made unusable due to storage at improper temperatures at this year's Flu Shot Round-Up on Oct. 22.

Facilitated by Walla Walla County Public Health Department, the fifth-annual mass vaccination clinic at the Walla Walla County fairgrounds was in its second day of a three-day operation when it became known the serum had reached a temperature deemed too high by health officials.

The ruined doses were valued at about $10,000 and put a crimp in getting some of the area vaccinated for seasonal flu.

The cooler used for the vaccine storage has since passed numerous inspections, fairgrounds officials reported.

•••

In September, the Walla Walla Public Works Department announced an ambitious plan that would set a goal to replace all city underground pipes and roads over the next 70 years and establish a five-year moratorium on any street work requiring asphalt cuts on newly paved roads.

The Infrastructure Sustainability Plan was proposed to help the city replace 140 miles of roads and pipes, of which 115 miles are rated as failing.

But the plan to fix the city's infrastructure will come with a big cost to residents, as water and sewer rates would be ramped up roughly 50 percent by 2015.

The original plan also called for ramping up construction over the same time period, starting with almost half a mile of work in 2010 and a full two miles in 2015 and every year after.

In December, Public Works reworked the numbers -- and also worked in an $18 million municipal loan -- in an attempt to hasten construction and reduce overall utility costs for the first two years.

Under the new proposal, replacement of 1.5 miles of streets and pipes could start in 2010, but overall utility rate increases for the first two years would drop from about 15 percent to roughly 10 percent.

To achieve the quick start and lower initial costs, the city is proposing utilizing an $18 million low-interest federal infrastructure replacement loan, which would be paid off at 3.2 percent interest over the next 10 years.

While the new proposal reduces overall utility rates for the first two years, the actual line item increases to water and sewer rates have remained roughly the same for both proposals -- a ramp up of roughly 50 percent by 2015.

Officials with St. Vincent de Paul and Blue Mountain Action Council have criticized the Infrastructure Sustainability Plan, and said it would cause too great a burden for lower income families. Others have pointed out that improvements to the city's infrastructure can lead to more employment and more business coming to town.

The Infrastructure Sustainability Plan will require City Council approval to be enacted. City officials said they will hold public forums in 2010 to seek input.

•••

Walla Walla General Hospital was the first hospital in the Northwest to participate in an 18-week nurse residency program this year.

Five new nurses took part in the concept's first round in Walla Walla.

Facilitated by the Versant corporation, the program is set up much like a traditional medical residency, providing a chance for recently graduated nurses to practice under the experienced eye of mentors in several areas.

By the end of nearly five months, participants have received post-academic education in medication dispensing, patient safety, working relationships and more, noted Randy Cardwell of General Hospital.

The result of the extra instruction -- at a $5,000 investment per student -- should be seen in less job turnover and burnout and a better-prepared nurse, he added.

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