Mayor emphasizes accountability for city government and residents
Better customer service, more aggressive collection of delinquent fees and taxes, stricter code enforcement. Those are among the ambitious plans that new Huntington Mayor Steve Williams spelled out in his first State of the City address last Friday, and they appear to be on target as sound strategies to move the city forward.
In summarizing his proposed budget for the next year, Williams explained why he is projecting a 5 percent growth in revenue. He expects what he called a new "entrepreneurial culture" to take hold at City Hall that will put certain employees in positions where their responsibilities will not only pay their way but provide extra revenue.
Whether that will indeed happens remains to be seen. But the new mayor has focused on the right areas that, in essence, ask both city government to do a better job and for residents to live up to their responsibilities.
One way he's doing that is a more aggressive effort to collect delinquent taxes and fees. One of the more aggravating factors in city government's longstanding financial struggles is the millions of dollars in delinquent taxes and fees. Any effort to raise fees -- and there have been too many of those in recent years -- has been met with complaints from responsible citizens that the city should first focus on those who haven't paid their share.
To address that, Williams proposes adding an assistant city attorney to focus solely on tax and fee collections and a position in the Finance Department to track user fee and municipal fee accounts, among other duties. More focused, persistent work to collect unpaid fees and quicker intervention when people fall behind on their fees could yield dividends.
Williams also expects City Hall to do a better job of code enforcement and, likewise, for residents to conform with those requirements. As the city's population dropped sharply over several decades, hundreds of properties have fallen into disrepair. That mars the city's image, breeds crime and endangers public safety. The city has been more aggressive in demolishing dilapidated structures in recent years, but stricter code enforcement could reduce the number of problem properties in the future.
The mayor also wants to institute a rental unit registry in which landlords would be required to register their property each year and pay a $50-per-unit fee to finance inspections every two or three years. Currently, inspection of rental property is virtually non-existent, meaning that many renters could be exposed to unsafe or unhealthy conditions. More than 47 percent of the city's residents lived in rental property in 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
On a different note, Williams wants to revamp the business licensing and permitting process so businesses can navigate it more easily. He proposes the hiring of a contracted employee -- former City Councilman Jim Insco -- to establish the new structure and the hiring of a full-time "business services concierge" to guide people through the licensing and permitting process.
The level of success of all these ideas won't be known for months and even years. But they do appear as if they will hold city government, city residents and businesses more accountable for their respective roles in a partnership that is necessary to fuel more progress for Huntington.