Huntington user fee is a necessary nuisance

May 18, 2019

Every so often, the debate over the amount and use of the Huntington city user fee flares up. It happened again a couple of weeks ago.

It started when WSAZ-TV Newschannel 3 aired a sweeps-month report raising questions about whether the money collected from the user fee was going where it was supposed to go: to support the Police Department and to pave streets.

At a Huntington City Council meeting Monday evening, Mayor Steve Williams said the money is being collected and spent properly, which can be shown by the fact that 16 audits have not found problems with the city’s user fee practices. Williams pledged that his administration will make greater efforts inform the public about how it benefits from the fee.

It’s called a user fee because it’s a fee charged to people who use city services. It’s a flat fee because if a policeman answers a call, it costs the city the same no matter the income level of the person who made the call. Streets deteriorate no matter how rich the person is who drives the car on them. It has to be called a user fee because state law at the time the fee was enacted did not allow cities to levy income taxes. That last part has changed since the advent of home rule, but an effort by former Mayor Kim Wolfe to consider an income tax failed.

The user fee concept has been around since at least 1994, when then-Mayor Jean Dean proposed a fee of $50 per year. But the city council rejected the idea. It was revived again in 2000, when Dean was running for her third consecutive term. She lost the general election to David Felinton in November of that year. At the end of that month, the council approved a fee of $2 a week as a way of avoiding a budget deficit. Many council members said their vote to approve the fee was the hardest decision of their lives.

The Cabell County Commission challenged the fee in Circuit Court, claiming it was in fact a tax the city was not legally authorized to levy. A judge agreed, calling it “a thinly veiled payroll tax.” The council passed another version of the fee in 2002, this time at $1 a week. This time it survived another legal challenge, and people who work in the city have dealt with it ever since. Over the years, it has increased to its current level of $5 a week.

Almost as soon as the first dollar from the user fee was collected, people began questioning whether it was really being used for what it was said to be. There may have been good reason for that, as people believed money from the user fee allowed the city to maintain its previous level of services while allocating more money to other expenses, such as employee insurance and pensions. People paid the fee, and then-Mayor David Felinton was still forced by budget constraints to lay off several police officers and make other cutbacks in city services.

And now the Police Department is at less strength in terms of the number of officers than is budgeted, and streets are still deteriorating. City officials say they are doing their best to recruit new officers.

The user fee was never intended to be the sole source of funding for the Police Department and for street repairs. But as long as the city needs more police officers and as long as dodging potholes is a way of life, the debate over the user fee will continue.

So, yes, this current debate over the user fee has happened before, and it will happen again until someone develops a politically acceptable plan to replace it with another revenue source.

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