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Mayor to propose new storm water fee

Jul. 25, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Another round of street flooding from heavy rainfall Monday highlights the need for Huntington to have a dedicated revenue source to help pay for its most challenging and costly infrastructure problem, Mayor Steve Williams says.

Huntington, and particularly the downtown area, took the brunt of Monday's storm. The afternoon rush hour was turned into a traffic nightmare as flooding on 3rd, 4th and 5th avenues between 20th and 26th streets made east-west routes impassible. North-south routes weren't any easier. Many of the underpasses resembled swimming pools for at least a couple of hours.

The reasons behind Huntington's storm water woes are two-fold. First, a large portion of Huntington's sewer system, much of which is a century old, consists of lines that carry both storm water and sewage. The combined lines often overflow during heavy rain, which prevents the city's wastewater treatment plant from treating the water. Instead, millions of gallons of untreated water flow into streams, rivers, basements and streets.

Secondly, decades of development in the city's watershed has steadily increased the rate at which storm water runoff and pollutants enter the city's sewer system.

Separating the combined system is a solution that is out of reach financially, Williams said Wednesday. Estimates have ranged between $500 million and $1 billion. The alternative solution, he said, is prioritizing capital projects and implementing environmentally friendly, preventive measures that involve efforts from the city and its residents to slow the flow of storm water into the sewer system during peak periods.

Williams said his administration is working on a comprehensive storm water plan that will be proposed to City Council this fall and will include a storm water fee. The fee amount and how it will be structured have yet to be determined.

"It's a balancing act," Williams said of the fee proposal. "My biggest concern is we have to remain competitive with all of the cities around us. At the same time, our primary avenues and viaducts flooding makes us noncompetitive."

Williams said the initial fee he proposes to City Council will give the city enough money to launch its storm water program. That process began last year when City Council adopted a five-year plan that outlined how Huntington will regain compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on its storm water permit. The EPA fined the city $156,000 for noncompliance in 2011, although the fine was reduced to $15,000 because the city agreed to move forward with a handful of storm water projects to reduce runoff.

The temporary fee will not go toward excessive administrative costs, Williams said. While it will help pay for some personnel costs, those costs will be attached to services such as keeping streets, storm drains and catch basins clean, he said.

"There was a fee proposal floated out there when I was on City Council last year and it showed the revenue during the first three to five years would have gone toward administrative costs before the first capital improvement project was implemented," Williams said. "That was unacceptable.

"During our budget sessions this past spring when City Council authorized us to have a new storm water division, I told them the budget amount they were approving ($92,000) was less than a base budget and we would be coming back with substantial recommendations later."

A fee is not the only source of income that the city can rely on to run the storm water program, Williams said. It will have to get creative in applying for state and federal grants. For example, the city could apply for homeland security grants to alleviate storm water flooding because it is a public safety issue when motorists and emergency vehicles can't get from one section of the city to another, he said.

Williams received authority from City Council on Monday to hire an executive director to run the storm water program. The mayor said he has someone in mind for the position who has experience in working with federal grant programs and storm water regulations.

Tax-increment financing districts also could be created around future commercial development projects to provide another injection of revenue to deal with flooding in certain areas, he said.

"We have to be extremely innovative in how we go about this," he said. "Business as usual is absolutely no longer an option."

Follow H-D reporter Bryan Chambers on Facebook or Twitter @BryanChambersHD.