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Economic growth voted No. 1 story for 2010

The continued growth of the Tri-City economy in the face of the persistent national recession and two shocking murder stories that took years to reach a conclusion were voted the top three stories of 2010 by the Herald staff.

The Tri-Cities' continued economic health unfolded in a series of reports each month that recounted job growth, increasing home prices and a healthy business climate.

And the murder trials -- of Vicente Ruiz and Phiengchai Sisouvanh Synhavong -- ran on for months as attorneys maneuvered and dueled through weeks of proceedings before the juries at last were seated and testimony could begin.

Economy

The Tri-Cities economy was the envy of much of the nation in 2010, thanks largely to the continued spending of $1.96 billion of economic stimulus money at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

National studies placed the Tri-Cities at or near the top of U.S. communities for job and wage growth. Garner Economics ranked the Tri-Cities No. 1 among the nation's 372 metropolitan areas for employment growth during the past five years.

Another study by the Milken Institute ranked the Tri-Cities among the top 10 metro areas in creating and sustaining jobs during the nation's economic downturn.

In fact, Tri-City jobs grew by the highest percentage in the nation from fall 2009 to fall 2010, the study found.

Home resales and median home prices in the Tri-Cities continued to increase as median prices in the rest of the state were falling.

Strong performance in the health care sector, food processing industry and manufacturing helped stabilize the community's economy, in addition to Hanford job growth.

However, not all of the Tri-Cities escaped the nation's economic troubles. Social service agencies reported increased demand for food for the hungry and medical care for the uninsured. Many of those reportedly were people who moved to the area after hearing about the strong economy.

Body shop slayings

After two mistrials in the 1987 body shop slayings, a Spokane County jury deliberated 10 1/2 hours in December before announcing that Vicente Ruiz was guilty in Pasco's bloodiest massacre.

Ruiz, 46, will spend life in prison for five counts of aggravated first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder. Sentencing is set for early this month.

The 23-year-old Franklin County Superior Court case was moved to Spokane after the second trial ended mid-testimony in June because stacks of police reports weren't handed over to the defense. Judge Cameron Mitchell ruled it would be difficult to seat an unbiased jury in Pasco given extensive media coverage of the case.

Early into the seven-week trial, Franklin County officials said they would ask the state Legislature to help pay for the ballooning trial costs. As of mid-November, the county already had spent $441,985 on expenses related to attorneys, interpreters and juries from the first two trials and anticipated another $250,000 through the end of 2010.

Ruiz's defense lawyers stand by their client's innocence and vow the decision will be reversed by the Washington Court of Appeals.

Baby stealing murder

More than two years after a grisly slaying of a pregnant Pasco mom shocked the Tri-Cities, a Kennewick woman was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.

Phiengchai Sisouvanh Synhavong, 26, of Kennewick stood trial in October for the June 2008 death of Araceli Camacho Gomez, 27.

Sisouvanh Synhavong stabbed Camacho Gomez 47 times and cut the mother's nearly full-term son out of her womb. The baby, Salvador, survived and is being raised by his father and two older siblings.

After 11 days of testimony, it took a Benton County Superior Court jury fewer than six hours of deliberations to reject Sisouvanh Synhavong's insanity defense and find her guilty of aggravated first-degree murder.

She will spend the rest of her life behind bars -- the only sentence she could receive after the death penalty was taken off the table.

"There's no joy in this case, no joy in the sentence," Judge Robert Swisher said when he sentenced her in November. "It is in effect a death sentence. You will die in prison."

She is appealing the conviction.

County seatBenton County voters once again turned back an effort to move the county seat from Prosser to Kennewick.

The measure on the Nov. 2 ballot fell about 1,500 votes short of achieving a required 60 percent supermajority.

Fred Staples, a retired Superior Court judge who personally gathered 23,600 petitions to put the question before voters, admitted at the end of a yearlong effort that the results were "almost exactly the same as 1984," when he made another attempt.

The League of Women Voters in Benton and Franklin Counties said it was "a good move," but that wasn't enough to overcome a vigorous campaign launched by Prosser's community leaders to keep the county seat where it has been since 1905. They claimed the move would cost millions, although a consultant hired by the county commissioners said moving the county seat to Kennewick would be more efficient and would save the county money over time.

Staples, 77, said he won't make a third attempt to relocate the county seat to Kennewick, where most of court business already is done and the majority of county employees are located.

Yucca Mountain

The Tri-Cities did not quietly take the Obama administration's efforts to shut down Yucca Mountain, Nev., as the nation's repository for high-level radioactive waste.

The year started with a lawsuit filed by Tri-City business leaders challenging whether the White House had the authority to shut down a project approved by Congress. By spring, Washington also had filed suit, with Gov. Chris Gregoire and Attorney General Rob McKenna concerned that no alternative for disposal of Hanford's high-level waste had been identified.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu appointed a blue ribbon commission to consider options -- except Yucca Mountain -- for the nation's weapons waste and used commercial nuclear fuel. The commission got an earful when it visited the Tri-Cities, with one commissioner saying he hadn't expected the passion he heard over the issue.

Meanwhile, the federal court deferred to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to decide whether the Department of Energy could withdraw its license application for Yucca Mountain. With no decision from NRC, the court took the matter back in December and lifted a stay it had imposed on pending lawsuits.

County incumbents ousted

Benton and Franklin counties saw three longtime public officials lose re-election bids to political newcomers in the Nov. 2 general election.

Franklin County Auditor Zona Lenhart, a Democrat who served as Franklin County auditor for 21 years, ended up 173 votes behind Republican Matt Beaton after a hard-fought race.

Lenhart started working for the county auditor's office in 1974, and worked in all four departments -- licensing, recording, elections and accounting -- before she was appointed in 1989. This election was the first time she had an opponent.

Democrat Steve Lowe, Franklin County prosecutor for 16 years, lost the seat to Tri-City lawyer Shawn Sant, a former employee.

Lowe might continue to be the prosecutor in three murder cases after the new year, because Sant can't handle them as prosecutor because of his work as a defense attorney.

And in Benton County, county Commissioner Max Benitz Jr. lost his seat to fellow Republican Shon Small after 16 years leading District 2.

Prosser scandal

A midsummer scandal rocked Prosser when former mayor Linda Lusk was accused of sexting a high school boy, which led to a one-time encounter that involved sexual contact.

Lusk, whose husband is principal at the boy's high school, faces a charge of third-degree child molestation with a trial date pending for January.

The alleged incident occurred in April but did not become known by police until more than a month later, after a high school boy told the rumor to his father, a Washington State Patrol trooper.

Lusk, 49, was Prosser's first female mayor when elected in 2003. She is the mother of four children and two stepchildren and owns a Prosser handbag boutique.

The boy and his mother, neither of whom has been identified in news stories, sought a sexual assault protection order for her son against Lusk.

Tri-City health care

The past year brought Tri-Citians more local health care offerings, as hospitals started new programs and brought in new pieces of technology.

Kennewick General Hospital began an oncology program that expanded the capacity for cancer patients to get care locally rather than traveling, while Kadlec Regional Medical Center brought neurologists and neurosurgeons to Richland to offer emergency coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Lourdes Medical Center in Pasco acquired a Mako surgery robot that will allow surgeons to perform more precise knee and hip replacement operations and lessen risks and recovery times for patients. The robot is one of only three being used in the state.

Expansion plans also sparked a months-long battle between Kadlec and KGH over their simultaneous requests to add beds to respond to the growing Tri-City population and greater demand for health care.

Any hospital needs a certificate of need from the state before it can expand. The process includes an application in which hospitals present data justifying their need, and a public hearing at which supporters and opponents can testify about whether more beds are needed in a community.

Kadlec officials have been critical of the formula applied by the state to determine need because it uses a medium estimate of population growth in a community. They argued a high estimate was more appropriate for the fast-growing Tri-Cities.

The competition resulted in Kadlec filing two legal actions trying to overturn the state-granted certificate of need for KGH's planned Southridge hospital. A subsequent flurry of settlement offers was exchanged between the hospital boards through May and June before one action was dismissed by a judge and Kadlec dropped the second.

The state ultimately awarded 55 beds to Kadlec and none to KGH.

Prosser plant closure

The closure of the ConAgra Lamb Weston plant in Prosser in May left 250 people without jobs and a city with a hole in its budget.

The food processing company was the largest private employer in the city. When the plant closed, the city lost about $300,000 from fees and utility taxes.

ConAgra bought the plant from Twin City Foods in 2007 and had spent millions to upgrade the facility. The plant processed white and sweet potatoes into frozen potato products.

ConAgra officials said a waning frozen potato market, the economy and the plant operation costs led to the decision to shutter the plant. The sweet potato processing was moved to a new plant in Louisiana, which is closer to where the spuds are grown.

Since the closure, Prosser and the company have held job fairs and resource fairs to help the laid-off employees find jobs and other help.

State budget woes

Faced with a $2.7 billion budget hole during the 2010 session, majority Democrats in the state Legislature enacted $800 million in new or increased taxes and by closing tax loopholes.

But voters in the November general election shot down a tax on candy and soda pop, and restored a requirement that two-thirds of lawmakers must approve tax increases or else send proposed taxes to the ballot.

State revenues continued to underperform expectations, and the Legislature will face an estimated $4.5 billion budget gap when it reconvenes Jan. 10.

The expected deficit led Gov. Chris Gregoire to propose sweeping cuts to health care, social services, prisons and education.

Sarah Palin visit

Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin made headlines in June when she dropped into the Tri-Cities for an impromptu visit with family -- and to offer an endorsement to U.S. Senate candidate Clint Didier.

Didier made a beeline back to Pasco from the state GOP convention in Vancouver to meet with Palin, who told the Herald she chose to support the former pro football player in his bid to unseat incumbent Democrat Patty Murray because she found him straightforward and sincere in his desire to serve.

Didier was knocked out of the race in the August primary, although he won Benton and Franklin counties by wide margins.

Murray went on to beat Republican challenger Dino Rossi 52 percent to 48 percent.

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