Herald staff takes a look back at 2012

TRI-CITY HERALD STAFFDecember 30, 2012 

Gregoire tours Vit Plant

Former Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire tours the vit plant before leaving office.

RICHARD DICKIN

Herald staffers chose the alleged embezzlement of millions of dollars by former Franklin County employee Dennis Huston as the top local news story of 2012.

The list once again included news about the Tri-City economy and issues related to growth, such as controversy about Pasco's annexation of the area of Franklin County known as the "doughnut hole" and the boom in Kennewick's Southridge neighborhood.

Discussions about regional facilities and tourism took a few spots on the list, with drama surrounding the development of a regional aquatics center and a topsy-turvy year for the proposed Hanford Reach Interpretive Center making news.

On the positive side, Herald staffers thought the comeback story about a home for the Carousel of Dreams in Kennewick was a top story.

This year's list also included a few honorable mentions, including the Port of Kennewick's new study of the future for the Vista Field Airport, relocation of the Rattlesnake Mountain Observatory to Wallula Gap, opening of a new planetarium at Columbia Basin College and efforts in Congress to include Hanford's B Reactor in a national park.

Here are the stories ranked as the Top 10 by the Herald staff:

1. Franklin County fraud

Dennis Huston, former Franklin County accounting manager, was arrested, then fired in connection with embezzling an estimated $2.8 million from the county since 1996.

Huston allegedly submitted false vouchers for a Spokane company that closed in 2001 and used the money to support his gambling and $100-a-day cocaine habit.

It later was discovered he had been hired by Franklin County less than eight months after he finished serving 21 months in federal custody for embezzling taxpayer money when he was a finance officer with a federal agency in Montana and had been investigated by the FBI in connection with fraud allegations in 2009.

His trial is expected to begin March 6.

County commissioners also fired Tim Fife, former county public works director and engineer, claiming he did not do enough to prevent the alleged embezzlement.

2. Doughnut divide

A number of residents of the Franklin County doughnut hole didn't bite when Pasco told them they'd be better off living within city boundaries.

The city's proposal to annex about 4,000 residents living in an unincorporated piece of the county that's surrounded by the city prompted contentious debates at several public meetings -- and an effort by some residents to incorporate their own city to avoid annexation.

Annexation opponents filed a petition to incorporate the new city and sued Pasco to block annexation, but the city council voted on Oct. 29 to go ahead with the annexation, which becomes effective Tuesday.

But the matter is far from settled. The lawsuit seeking to block annexation is ongoing, with a hearing scheduled for Friday, and annexation opponents have vowed to continue efforts to get out of Pasco and incorporate their own city.

3. Hanford vit plant troubles

A decade after construction of Hanford's $12.2 billion vitrification plant started, the project was plagued with problems in 2012.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu made finding solutions a priority, spending several days in September in the Tri-Cities considering options with a hand-picked team of experts.

Construction slowed or stopped on key parts of the plant until technical issues about its safe and efficient operation could be resolved. Those issues and a budget that fell short of DOE plans contributed to the layoff of an estimated 750 or more workers from fall 2011 through 2012.

The Department of Energy questioned whether the plant could be built at the budgeted $12.2 billion and would be operating as legally required in 2019. But until technical issues are resolved a new cost and schedule cannot be calculated, top DOE officials said.

In August a key Hanford DOE engineering official blasted contractor Bechtel National, saying it should be removed as the design authority for the project.

The year ended with Chu organizing a series of new teams to address technical issues at the plant and to look for opportunities for more efficient or faster operations at the plant.

The urgency of getting the plant operating to treat radioactive waste for disposal increased as the first leak from the inner shell of one of Hanford's 28 double-shell storage tanks was discovered.

4. Tri-City economy sluggish

The Tri-Cities continued to make top 10 lists for its rapid growth and its economy, despite seeing employment dip and unemployment rise when compared with 2011.

More than 800 people were laid off this year at the Hanford nuclear reservation and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Layoffs were mostly because of a tightening federal budget and troubles at the Hanford vitrification plant.

Home sales were on par with years prior to the federal first-time homebuyer tax credit. But the number of new housing permits declined, particularly in Pasco. Builders and real estate agents blamed the school impact fees Pasco adopted earlier this year, but Kennewick also saw a dip in building activity.

5. Southridge growth

The start of construction on a new Kennewick General Hospital at Southridge was the latest herald of continued growth in the south Kennewick neighborhood.

The Kennewick Public Hospital District broke ground on the new 168,000-square-foot hospital in June following five years of efforts to find financing and get state approval for the project, while rival Kadlec Regional Medical Center tried to convince the state that the plan for the new hospital wasn't viable.

Kadlec has its own plans near the Southridge area, and announced that the Richland-based hospital had found a site at Highway 395 and West 19th Avenue for a 25,000-square-foot, stand-alone emergency department.

Other developments in the area included the first baseball and softball tournaments at the multimillion-dollar Southridge Sports and Events Complex since opening in the fall of 2011, construction starting on new housing and commercial developments, and the city continuing to work on roads and utility lines to attract even more investment by developers.

Tie 6. Jefferson Elementary School

Parents at Jefferson Elementary in Richland threatened to oppose a proposed $98 million bond for the Richland School District if school officials closed Jefferson as proposed.

The bond, which would build two new schools and rebuild three others if approved by voters, called for closing Jefferson as a traditional K-5 school and making it into a home for Three Rivers HomeLink, an alternative school with about 400 students currently operating out of a Richland church.

Parents at Jefferson criticized the board for not seeking community input on the proposed closure. Some said they knew the district needed the bond to pay for necessary improvements and buildings, but they would oppose it and encourage others to do so if Jefferson was closed.

Board members voted in November to keep Jefferson as a traditional elementary school and find another home for HomeLink.

Tie 6. Homicides linked to mental illness

The Tri-Cities saw two homicides this year that involved suspects with mental health issues.

The first was just 27 days into the new year when Viola Williams, 87, was brutally attacked in her Kennewick home by her grandson, who claimed God directed him to kill her.

Adam Ryan Williams, 29, was acquitted earlier this month of first-degree murder after a judge ruled he was "not guilty by reason of insanity." The West Richland man will spend the rest of his life in a state psychiatric facility.

On March 6, Joseph William Hart was arrested after allegedly stabbing and killing his roommate, Rodger A Lincoln, 53, at the Pasco mobile home they shared. Hart, 28, is being evaluated at Eastern State Hospital to determine if he is competent to stand trial for second-degree murder and whether he was sane at the time of the offense.

A few cases also wrapped up this year.

Aaron Velasco of Pasco got a 15-year prison sentence for attacking his younger sister with a knife and a machete in June 2011. The 29-year-old, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, said Magdalena "Maggy" Velasco-Garcia was mean to him and he only intended to hurt her.

Gregorio Luna Luna, 32, was told in March that he will spend the rest of his life behind bars for fatally stabbing his ex-girlfriend Griselda Ocampo Meza in front of their son in May 2010.

And in April, Jose Garcia-Morales, 28, was sentenced to 751/2 years. He and his older brother, Ramon, went to a Pasco home in December 2008 and fatally shot a father of four while leaving the man's wife paralyzed.

7. New carousel home

The Three Rivers Carousel Foundation moved forward on building a home for the Carousel of Dreams at Southridge Sports and Events Complex.

The Kennewick City Council was considering selling off the 1910 Charles Carmel carousel to recoup some of the $830,000 the city invested in it. The horses, bought in 2003, were restored and have been sitting in city storage.

But the city gave the nonprofit and its new board members another chance last January to finish the project.

Gesa Credit Union recently announced its contribution of $1 million, giving the credit union naming rights for 12 years. The foundation hopes for a July grand opening.

8. Tri-Cities aquatics center

After months of study and discussion, the Tri-Cities Regional Public Facilities District board in June made an aquatics center at the TRAC facility in Pasco its first choice for a project to pursue. But plans hit a snag when Franklin County commissioners in a split vote withdrew the Pasco facility from the market.

An alternative site for the $35 million center with indoor and outdoor features since has emerged -- property the city of Pasco has agreed to buy near the Broadmoor Park outlet mall off Sandifur Parkway.

The regional board could decide in January whether to send the project to the ballot. It's contingent on voters in Richland, Pasco and Kennewick signing on off on a 0.1 percent sales-tax increase to foot the bill.

9. Hanford Reach

After starting the year by selecting new CEO Lisa Toomey to replace the outgoing Kimberly Camp, the Richland Public Facilities District Board went through a tumultuous period of re-evaluation.

Changes included slashing the agency's budget, laying off staff members and scaling back the proposed Hanford Reach Interpretive Center project when it became apparent that fundraising goals for the $40.5 million building couldn't be met.

The board agreed to move forward with building a 12,000- to 17,000-square-foot museum instead of the 61,000-square-foot building previously envisioned for the west end of Columbia Park.

The project suffered a setback when two major donors withdrew pledges, but the decision to scale back attracted renewed support from Mission Support Alliance and Lockheed Martin, including a $500,000 pledge and an offer of technical expertise from Lockheed to get the project moving toward construction.

10. Umatilla depot deactivated

The blue flag of the Umatilla Chemical Depot near Hermiston was lowered for the last time in July. The depot was deactivated after 71 years of use by the Army, first as a munitions and general supply storehouse, then the storage and eventual destruction of about 12 percent of the nation's stockpile of chemical weapons.

Work continues to clean up the incineration plant at the depot used to destroy 3,717 tons of nerve and blister chemical weapons agent.

But that work is winding down too. Shortly before the start of 2012, about 830 people worked there, about half of them commuting across the state line from the Tri-Cities or nearby. About 400 to 450 jobs are expected to be cut in 2013.

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