City defends user fee collection

May 14, 2019

HUNTINGTON — Huntington Mayor Steve Williams defended the $5-a-week city user fee during a presentation to members of City Council Monday, providing a slideshow of how the revenue is being spent on police protection and street construction.

Williams was responding to a story by WSAZ-TV that attempted to show the city was not spending all of the approximately $8 million in annual revenue collected from the fee on the police department and the public works department.

Williams said the money is being properly collected and spent, which is evidenced by the fact that 16 years of audits have not flagged the city for its user fee practices. He said the city will make greater efforts to inform the public about how the user fee revenue benefits them in the future. Monday’s presentation to members of city council and the city’s Administration and Finance Committee will help show the public how the police department is operating with its largest budget in history and that more roads, hillsides and culverts are being repaired than ever before, he said.

“We welcome this conversation because we believe when individuals see how the money is being spent, that they will be coming to you and saying, ‘Thank you for making sure the issues we have that we need to address in the city, that they are being addressed.’”

Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial said service fee revenue has brought in more than $28.6 million to the police department since 2014, making up approximately 36% of his department’s budget. He said the money is being spent on equipment, training and manpower, among other things.

Jim Insco, director of the public works department, said the department has spent more than $11.3 million between 2013 and 2019 on paving, roads slip repairs, bridge repairs and culvert replacements. His department has completed 184 paving projects, completing 41.9 miles of roadway since 2013, he said.

WSAZ-TV’s story said the city was not placing user fee revenue in a separate account, which is dictated by the city’s own ordinance. City Manager Cathy Burns and Finance Director Kathy Moore showed how the revenue was being placed into a separate account specifically for the user fee as directed by the State Auditor’s Office.

During the public comment section of city council, resident Monty Fowler suggested the city include information on how the user fee revenue is being spent in its newsletter given periodically around the neighborhood districts. He said the city’s reluctance to participate in WSAZ-TV’s story gave the public the perception of wrongdoing, even if there was no wrongdoing.

Council Chairman Mark Bates and Council Member Carol Polan said they took issue with not being seen as transparent and questioned why the WSAZ-TV reporter did not attend the city’s budget hearings earlier in the year or interview other members of the Finance Committee.

“Because someone inferred on TV or implied that we were being less than transparent, I take offense to because we have done nothing but be transparent to the public,” Finance Committee Chairwoman Joyce Clark said.

She added the city’s financial statements and audits for recent years are posted on its website and are available for inspection at City Hall.

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