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Mayor unveils plan for city

Feb. 15, 2013 @ 11:00 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Mayor Steve Williams unveiled an aggressive plan during his State of the City address Friday that aims to reorganize several areas of city government, strengthen tax and fee collections, and use new code enforcement tactics to improve the quality of life for residents.

The mayor also released a proposed $43.5 million budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year that reflects 5 percent in revenue growth over this year. However, it does not rely on any tax or fee increases aside from a new rental unit registry fee for landlords.

"This is a strategic approach that we're calling enterprise budgeting," Williams said. "This fosters an entrepreneurial culture at City Hall where innovation and creativity produces efficiency, increased productivity and improved services."

Most of the revenue growth in next year's budget is attributed to an increase in stepped-up collections of the business and occupation tax, Williams said. That will occur by hiring nine new employees whose jobs will be tied directly to revenue creation, he said.

"These people will have the explicit responsibility to raise money to pay for themselves multiple times over so we can expand services in other areas," Williams said.

A total of 11 new employees would be hired under Williams' proposed budget.

The mayor proposes adding an assistant city attorney, a position which was eliminated two years ago, to focus solely on tax and fee collections. The budget also funds a position in the Finance Department that would track user fee and municipal fee accounts, among other duties.

Acting on a recommendation from his transition team, Williams also wants to overhaul the business licensing and permitting process so it is more customer friendly. That task will be guided by former City Councilman Jim Insco, who will be employed as a contracted employee. Insco will be paid $5,000 to set up the new structure and will begin his work in the next couple of weeks, Williams said.

Under the new structure, Williams wants to hire a full-time "business services concierge" who would guide people through the licensing and permitting process. The process now consists of shuffling customers among numerous offices, he said.

"You don't just give someone an 800 number and call that customer service," Williams said. "You show them the value they are getting. And guess what? They keep coming back."

Williams also expects to see revenue generated through significant code enforcement changes. The reason for the changes is more about improving living conditions in the city than it is making money through citations, he said. However, an analysis of revenues from code citations shows the program has become almost nonexistent, he said.

Code enforcement touches almost every aspect of city government, Williams said. It's why the new approach will involve the Fire and Police departments, the Inspections and Compliance Division, planning and zoning, he said.

"We don't operate in silos anymore," Williams said. "If you own property in this town, consider yourself put on notice that you will have to take care of it. You can no longer look to city government to do it for you."

Williams is proposing to hire a new code enforcement officer in addition to two new firefighters. The latter proposal would allow the Fire Department to reinstate its Fire Prevention Bureau, which has been closed since 2011 because of budget constraints. The bureau would shift its focus from investigations to prevention and assist with code enforcement, he said.

The mayor also will introduce an ordinance in the next few weeks that imposes fines on property owners who store indoor belongings on their front porches or in their yards.

During the next few months, the city will seek the ability to issue on-the-spot violations through the Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program, Williams said. Property owners now have a 10-day warning period to clean up their messes before they receive a citation. Charleston was granted the authority to issue on-the-spot citations as part of its home rule plan and it has worked well, Williams said.

A rental unit registry will be another part of the emphasis on code enforcement, Williams said. More than 47 percent of the city's residents lived in rental property in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A rental unit registry is vital to ensure the public safety of those residents and that property is being well-maintained, Williams said.

Landlords would be required to register their property annually along with a $50-per-unit fee. The fee is forecast to yield $330,000 annually and would help pay for the new code enforcement officer and allow for rental unit inspections every two or three years.

Williams said he plans to meet with landlords in the next few weeks to talk about the proposal in greater detail.

The code enforcement blitz would begin in the West End, where the city is in the beginning phase of revitalizing the neighborhood with an initiative modeled after the Weed and Seed program in Fairfield West, Williams said.

Councilman Pete Gillespie, who represents the West End, said Williams has several lofty goals for his district that he is eager to learn more about as the council begins to work on the mayor's budget.

"The people of the West End that I've talked to are very receptive to this plan," Gillespie said. "The bulk of the people there want change and have wanted code enforcement issues addressed for a long time."

Councilwoman Sandra Clements said the city has made progress in recent years with tearing down dilapidated housing. Williams' renewed focus on code enforcement gets to the root of the problem so more properties don't end up condemned, she said. She also said she was pleased to hear about efforts to collect delinquent taxes and fees.

"It creates an uproar with my constituents every time they hear about people who don't pay," she said. "It's time for us to move forward and make sure everyone pays their fair share.

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



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