HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — In a year where the City of Huntington is celebrating its 150th anniversary, Mayor Steve Williams promised big plans for 2021 during his State of the City address on Friday.
With only city council members and key members of the mayor’s leadership team in attendance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams gave his proposal for the budget for the Fiscal Year 2022 and laid out three priorities for the next year that include continued fiscal responsibility, economic transformation and overcoming the effects of the pandemic.
Williams told the team in the room and those watching via stream that Huntington was made for the struggle and has shown it can prevail through anything including a pandemic.
“I believe that we were born for a time like this. What I have observed of the dynamics of this group, something special is brewing. We are here at this location, at this time, on purpose,” Williams said.
Williams proposed a couple of ideas to keep Huntington on the right track fiscally, as he stated, ‘We have established ourselves as the most fiscally sound municipality in West Virginia.’
The mayor said he wants to take a serious look at making permanent the elimination of the Business and Occupation Tax for retail and restaurants. The tax had been frozen due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Williams also believes in the need to review the city’s regressive fee structure that pays for various services.
“Suffering through the uncertainty of a pandemic is not the time to permanently change our tax and revenue structure. It is the time, however, to begin a review of our business tax structure and accompanying fee apparatus,” Williams said.
Another elimination that Williams proposed to make that he believes will spur development and encourage homeownership in the area is building permit fees for all new residential housing being constructed or rehabilitated in Huntington.
The city recently eliminated Business and Occupation taxes for the construction and rehabilitation of homes for the first $200,000 of the project.
Williams said the demolition and redevelopment of buildings and land is part of a larger undertaking by the city that includes the Project SHINE pilot program. The project is targeted for the Highlawn neighborhood for owner-occupied homes that need rehabilitation. According to the mayor, 140 owner-occupied homes are being targeted with an expectation to rehabilitate 70 homes this summer.
The purpose is to help stabilize housing in the Highlawn neighborhood and then move to other neighborhoods.
In 2020, Huntington demolished 104 structures. Williams said the city expects by June 30 of this year to have demolished an additional 113 structures.
Williams also highlighted the work of the Public Works operation that has continued to address capital improvement projects such as street paving, street construction, sidewalk repairs and construction. $5 million is being budgeted for capital outlay and improvements including $1.6 million for paving. The budget for paving is the same amount as the current fiscal year.
Williams said he has a plan to establish a set paving program of the city’s 200 miles of streets. The program will have a schedule for the next 8-10 years on what streets will be paved and in what year.
“An established paving schedule will include paving, maintenance, and restoration. We know that restoration programs lengthen the usable life of a paved street,” Williams said.
“Gone are the days when streets will go 40 years or more without being paved.”
Williams credited the city’s partnership with the West Virginia Department of Transportation (DOT) in jumpstarting construction projects in 2021. Those include the replacement of the 5th Street Bridge and 8th Street Bridge with new designs. He expects the projects to begin this year.
The city also has budgeted for the Hal Greer Boulevard highway redesign and expects the work to begin this year
Williams said he hopes the commitment to capital improvement projects leads to more innovation. He announced Friday the creation in the mayor’s office budget of an Innovative Projects appropriation of $250,000 to provide to city council.
“This will provide city council a process wherein an idea can be evaluated, measured and discussed and ultimately receive seed funding to determine whether it is worthy of pursuing,” Williams said.
Williams said there is increasing acknowledgement that the COVID-19 pandemic and opioid pandemic are overlapping with issues. With that, he proposed to create a council on public health and drug control policy.
Included in the budget in the creation of a mental health liaison position for the police department. According to Williams, this person will coordinate mental health services for the public on police calls for service. They will also develop an overall program with private and public providers.
Huntington Police, Huntington Fire and AFSCME employees are set to get raises as part of the fiscal year. Police officers will get a 2% raise, firefighters will get a 3% raise and AFSCME will get 3% raise as well. All professional and administrative employees will also get a 5% raise.
The city council has been in office for 43 days on Friday. Williams was reelected to a third term in November. He first took office in November 2012.