Yakima lost $400,000 in federal funding to upgrade alleys; staff says it’s overworked and that the grant fell through the cracks.

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YAKIMA — Many of Yakima’s eastside residents use gravel alleys for parking and direct access to their homes. They likely will have to wait until at least 2020 to see improvements.

That’s because the city lost a nearly $400,000 federal grant at the beginning of the year to resurface alleys because it failed to meet design and construction deadlines.

The project was going to upgrade alleys between Folsom Avenue and Fruitvale Boulevard from 16th to Sixth avenues.

City staff and the Yakima City Council have conflicting explanations on why the deadlines were missed. But officials said safeguards are being put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

City staffers also say the project slipped through because of a large number of projects and low staffing levels.

Despite being almost entirely funded by federal dollars, the project was listed as the 12th priority on a list of 61.

The alleys weren’t talked about as much as projects listed higher, such as the North First Street Revitalization, safety improvements to sidewalks and other amenities near Garfield Elementary, and extending Bravo Company Boulevard as part of the redevelopment of the former Boise Cascade mill site.

Even City Council member Jason White, who was outspoken about the city’s losing the grant, said he wasn’t aware of the project until the council was notified that the grant was lost.

City Chief Engineer Brett Sheffield said a project’s priority isn’t what’s important, it’s the funding.

Council member Dulce Gutierrez also expressed concern about the loss of the grant.

While the list of transportation projects has grown, the city’s engineering staff has dropped from 15 to seven.

“The staffing level has gone down and the project list has increased,” said City Manager Cliff Moore.

But Gutierrez said this wasn’t about money or staffing.

“This department, of all departments, has had a lot of favorable outcomes during every annual budgeting cycle,” she said. “This is a department that’s been supported every step of the way. There’s no reason they should be struggling.”

Gutierrez and White have pointed to it as part of a larger problem that has plagued the city for years — neglecting the east side of town.

As an example, Gutierrez referenced two intersections that had the same number of collisions last year.

It took fewer than six months to request and complete unbudgeted upgrades at 40th and Chestnut avenues that another council member requested.

An intersection with similar issues in her eastside district is still waiting, she said.

“I do question if this project was in west Yakima, would it have been forgotten,” she said, referring to the project to pave the east Yakima alleys. “I’m having a hard time believing it would have taken this long. I don’t want to assume people’s motives, but this kind of mistake doesn’t happen in more affluent neighborhoods.”

White says that’s why he’s been trying to get the council to focus on projects it wants to prioritize.

In an attempt to keep from another situation like this one, Moore said staff is creating a tracking file for each project that will include information about its funding amount, source, timeline and who’s responsible for managing that project, among other information.

They will have quarterly updates on the projects at council meetings.

“This is a really unfortunate situation,” Moore said. “It’s not something we’re happy about. … These small changes are going to tie up any loose ends that may have existed.”