Budget, efficiency issues are priorities for City Council candidates
HUNTINGTON -- Resolving Huntington's numerous financial problems and making city operations more user-friendly are among the top priorities for the candidates running for Huntington City Council's two at-large seats in the Nov. 6 election.
Running for the seats are Democratic incumbent Rebecca Thacker and fellow Democrat David Ball and Republicans Cal Kent and Gordon Ramey II.
Unlike council members who are elected by district, at-large council members are elected by voters citywide. The top two vote recipients in the general election will be elected to the council. Steve Williams, the other current at-large council member, is running for mayor.
Thacker became involved in governmental affairs over the years as an advocate for the disabled. She was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child. She has served on council's Public Safety and Storm Water committees during her first term.
"I have learned this job isn't for someone who isn't putting their whole heart into it," she said. "It's not for someone who just wants an easy job. Although, I do enjoy it, and I think I have more to offer than the other candidates because of the experience."
Thacker said she would work to strengthen communication between the council and the public by attending neighborhood association meetings.
"That's one way to do it," she said, "and I fully intend to go to those meetings once the election is over to see what those people need. We can't address the issues if we don't know what the issues are."
Thacker also said she would support efforts to give the Huntington Fire Department's union a new contract and give both police officers and firefighters a raise.
"Those are issues that are long overdue," she said. "Contracts mean security. The Police Department got one, but the Fire Department is still waiting for theirs."
A resident of Westmoreland, Thacker also said she would continue to oppose a proposed barge mooring facility along the Ohio River in the neighborhood.
"I will never vote for that mooring facility to go into a residential area," she said.
Ball was a Huntington firefighter for 23 years before retiring in 2003. He now owns Bon Appetit, a catering business, with his wife, Yvonne.
Ball said he brings the perspectives of a city employee, business owner and administrative head to City Council. Yvonne Ball served as director of the Huntington Municipal Parking Board for more than 20 years before retiring about 10 years ago.
Ball views updating the city's computer system as one of the most imperative ways to make city government more citizen- and business-friendly. The city's current operating system is almost 25 years old and hinders the city's ability to collect fees online or allow business owners to apply for permits or licenses online.
"We can buy plane tickets and go anywhere in the world using our smartphones," Ball said. "Yet, in Huntington in 2012, I can't pay my municipal fee online or even get a rummage sale permit."
Operating system advancements will have numerous benefits, namely strengthening revenue collections and streamlining the code enforcement and licensing processes, Ball said.
"These upgrades equate to efficiency, which equates to more revenue," he said. "Efficiency will become one of our new revenue streams."
Ball said city officials also must open dialogue with state lawmakers about the tax structure to show them what is working and what is holding cities back from being competitive. He believes the 1 percent sales tax that was implemented earlier this year while eliminating the business and occupation tax for manufacturers and reducing it by half for retail and service-based businesses is working.
"As a business owner, my B and O taxes were cut 50 percent, but not one of my customers has mentioned a word about the 1 percent sales tax," he said. "As for the occupation tax, it's a moot point. Not one of our legislators will back it. But that doesn't mean they should scrap home rule. It's allowed cities to do a lot of good things to address the abandoned housing problem."
Kent is former dean of the College of Business and former vice president of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Marshall University. He is now teaching business classes at Marshall and is organizing the entrepreneurship program there. He served on City Council from 1998-2008 as the District 6 representative.
Moving the city forward depends on whether its financial health can be improved, and there are a few critical steps which can be taken to accomplish that, he said.
They include aggressively pursuing delinquent taxes and fees, adopting consultant recommendations to reduce costs in the Fire Department, which would free up money to adequately staff the department, and updating square footage records on property so the city is collecting what is due in the municipal fee, he said.
The city also must devise a plan to keep programs running if the $4 million in state and federal grants supporting them now is cut or eliminated, Kent said. Similarly, the city has a duty to inform residents of the hundreds of millions of dollars in future costs from fire and police pensions, other post employment benefits, landfill closure costs and storm and sanitary sewer projects, he said.
The city also should do more to promote economic development by updating its website for businesses looking to relocate to the area and rely more on resources at Marshall University and Mountwest Community and Technical College, Kent said.
"The potential of higher education must be better utilized," he said. "Marshall has made civic involvement one of its core missions, and the programs at MCTC create a pool of employees that are a positive force for economic development."
Ramey served as Huntington's police chief in 2001 and 2002, but he was fired by then-Mayor David Felinton just weeks before the city laid off 16 police officers. Ramey says he was relieved of his duties for telling citizens the truth that crime would increase as a result of letting officers go.
He was the Republican nominee for mayor in 2004 but lost to Felinton in the general election. He is now a scholarship and enrollment officer for ROTC at four colleges in West Virginia.
Ramey said he has become frustrated at the city's inability to get its financial house in order, and he believes he can help shape a realistic budget and get the city to live within its means.
Streamlining the business license process also would be a priority of Ramey's.
"I think the city should appoint someone to make it easy on businesses to get a license," Ramey said. "The city should be nothing more that a speed bump whereas now we put up obstacle after obstacle."
Increasing staffing levels in the Police Department under the leadership of Chief Skip Holbrook has been a key reason the crime rate has fallen, Ramey said. The same methodology should be applied to the Fire Department, he said.
"Those are the two city services that I think we have to absolutely maintain and provide to the citizens," he said.