AP NEWS

Officials defend utilization of user fee

May 14, 2019

HUNTINGTON — Every penny collected from Huntington’s $5-a-week user fee is spent on police protection and street construction, said City Manager Cathy Burns.

The city has properly collected, accounted for and spent all revenue generated from the fee since its inception 17 years ago, she said.

Any notion that the fee is somehow being mishandled is contradicted by a series of clean audits given by the West Virginia State Auditor’s Office since 2002, the first year the user fee went into effect, she said.

“Every penny of the user fee is used for police protection and street paving and reconstruction,” Burns said. “Every penny we take in for the user fee is less money than what those two items alone costs us.”

Burns is defending how the city uses the city service fee revenue since the fee was increased from $3-a-week to $5-a-week in 2015. Her defense is on the heels of a WSAZ-TV story that attempts to show the city has not increased spending on police and street construction with the extra revenue generated from the fee increase.

However, the story did not mention that budgets for the police department and public works department are higher than the extra $3.5 million the fee generated since 2015.

The story said the city has not used the money to hire additional police officers, but did not mention the department’s

numerous attempts to recruit officers amid a nationwide police officer shortage. City Council recently gave a $14.5 million budget to the police department, its largest budget in the department’s history. Approximately 36 percent of that budget comes from user fee revenue.

The story further said the fee is not being collected in a separate account. The money is placed under the general fund category because it is being used for payroll and cap-itol improvement projects, a requirement of the State Auditor’s Office. Under that category, the money is placed in a “special assessment account” based on the State Auditor’s Office’s “uniform chart of accounts.” This account is only used for money collected from the city’s user fee and is separate from the city’s 50 other revenue sources. This practice is dictated by the Governmental Accounting Standards Board, which establishes the generally accepted accounting principles used by city and county governments.

Burns, Mayor Steve Williams, Police Chief Hank Dial and Public Works Director Jim Insco will all give reports about the user fee to members of the city’s Administration and Finance Committee on Monday night.

During the previous committee meeting, Chairwoman Joyce Clark requested reports to help show the public how the user fee money is being spent. Clark’s request came as WSAZ-TV was preparing its story, which she declined to comment on until after the reports were given.

The one thing the administration may agree on is they have not reminded the public on a regular basis of how the user fee benefits them, said Bryan Chambers, city communications director. However, no one can accuse the administration or previous administrations of improperly collecting and spending the user fee revenue, he said.

The user fee was proposed and implemented under Mayor David Felinton in 2002 at $1 per week. It increased to $2 the following year and then $3 in 2002 under Mayor Kim Wolfe.

When city council and Williams’ administration increased the fee to S5-a-week in 2015, it was primarily made with critical road repairs in mind, Chambers said. The money has been used to repair several road slips, bank stabilization projects, culvert repairs and bridge maintenance, he said.

Burns said the ordinance that established the fee was written so the revenue would help “defray” the costs of police protection and street construction. The fee was never meant to be the sole driver of revenue for those two departments, she said.

The user fee brought in a little over $8 million last fiscal year, which was completely allocated between the police department and public works, she said.

The police department would like to use the money to hire additional officers, but recruitment is down across the nation, she said. If the city budgets for 20 additional officers, the money would sit unused in the police department’s account. The police department has hired every qualified applicant that has applied, she said.

Instead, the user fee revenue has been used to pay police overtime, give pay raises, purchase new equipment and purchase new vehicles.

“If the solution were so simple to say, ‘Just pour more money into it for more people,’ every department across this country would be doing that,” she said. “It’s not that simple.”

Seven other cities in the state have user fees that are all collected under general fund categories, except Parkersburg. Parkersburg places its user fee revenue under a restricted capitol fund category because the money is only used for capitol fund projects.

Travis Crum Is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He may be reached by phone at 304-526-2801.

“Every penny of the user fee is used for police protection and street paving and reconstruction. Every penny we take in for the user fee is less money than what those two items alone costs us.”

Cathy Burns

Huntington city manager