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Editorial: Capital budget would yield map to address needs

Aug. 28, 2013 @ 10:48 PM

For much of the time since 2000, Huntington's city government has been in crisis mode.

Serious budget problems, leading to cuts in personnel. Escalating pension costs. Surprise expenses, often through miscalculations or miscommunications but also due to failing infrastructure.

Recent years have seen some improvement. City leaders resolved to do some much-needed street paving and have mostly carried through on that promise. The police department was beefed up in response to a rising drug problem. And the launch of a city sales tax in 2012 provided a little more revenue for the city budget than expected.

But missteps still come to light, prompting justified calls from the city's current leaders that more changes are needed to deal with the city's challenges effectively.

A case in point is that city officials last week were deliberating how to accomplish work that was supposed to have started almost a year ago but much of it was never done.

In August 2012, the City Council had learned that the city's new 1 percent sales tax had generated more money than expected in its first six months. So it decided to allocate $100,000 toward fixing up to 250 catch basins throughout the city. The catch basins -- those openings along street curbs that allow storm water to enter into the city's sewer system -- were either crumbling, missing grates or were several inches below the street surface. In one way or another, these catch basins posed a safety hazard either to passersby or motorists.

However, only about $13,000 was spent on the work, and the rest of the money was diverted to pay for solutions to other problems, such as a drainage issue, a sinkhole and repairing a landslide. Now the city is deliberating whether to wait for city crews to do the work on the catch basins, which will take considerable time, or hire a contractor to do it. The latter option is likely to cost more.

A council discussion on the issue prompted Gary Bunn, chairman of the council's Finance Committee, to renew his call for an annual capital improvement budget. His frustration stems from repeated requests for funding to deal with such issues as road slips or failing sewer lines -- items that should have been dealt with by prior councils and administrations, he contends.

Bunn has a good point, and Mayor Steve Williams indicated he will follow up with a proposed capital improvement budget prior to the start of the 2014-2015 budget year.

Such a plan makes good sense. It would require city officials to assess the greatest needs, find a way to address them and put in writing how much money should be allocated and when the work should be done.

Developing a capital improvement budget will provide a road map for tackling the city's problems and outline clearly what should be done when. Among the benefits is more accountability.

If such planning becomes routine, perhaps in a few years city officials won't be confronted with so many crises.

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