New water board approved
HUNTINGTON -- The Huntington City Council unanimously approved a proposal from Mayor Steve Williams to create a new Water Quality Board, and with it a storm water fee to address flooding issues, during a meeting Monday night.
The issue, which has been discussed at length over the past two weeks, drew a crowd of Huntington residents who wanted to speak on the topic, with more residents voicing support for the ordinance than those opposing it.
Williams made the rare move of signing the ordinance after it was passed, at the request of Councilman Scott Caserta, who presided as chairman of the meeting in the absence of Mark Bates.
"We've talked this thing to death and I appreciate everyone's patience," Caserta said. "Let's put this to rest and move the city forward."
The proposal, which will go into effect Oct. 1, creates a Water Quality Board to serve as an umbrella over the city's Sanitary Board, storm water department and floodwall division. The storm water and floodwall departments are already in the process of being merged with the Sanitary Board in an effort to reduce costs and improve efficiency in addressing infrastructure problems that create flooding on Huntington's main roadways after moderate to heavy rainstorms.
Part of the plan includes a $7.15 storm water fee that will appear on property owners' monthly Sanitary Board bills.
The fee will be a flat $7.15 for residential and non-residential property owners for the next two years, while the Water Quality Board conducts mapping of impervious surfaces -- man-made structures that contribute to water runoff -- on non-residential properties.
After two years, residential property owners will still pay the flat rate, while non-residential owners will pay the $7.15 rate up to 3,000 square feet of impervious materials. Non-residential owners will pay $1.05 for every 1,000 square feet of impervious material between 3,000 and one million square feet.
Property owners on public assistance will receive a 65 percent discount on the fee. Businesses and residents who make an effort to divert water from entering the storm water system by using rain barrels or other methods are eligible for a discount as well.
Williams said a percentage discount for diversion efforts has yet to be established, and will be determined by the Water Quality Board once it is formed.
The Water Quality Board will be comprised of the same members who now lead the Sanitary Board. Future appointments will be decided by Council. The office of mayor, which is currently part of the Sanitary Board, will also be a part of the Water Quality Board.
Those who spoke against the ordinance mainly cited having to pay yet another fee for problems that belong to the city. The cost is slightly offset by a 10 percent reduction of the city municipal fee -- also approved unanimously Monday night.
Those who supported the move applauded the mayor and council for tackling a problem that has plagued Huntington since the late 1940s. Most said they didn't like the idea of paying a fee, but added that the current situation in the city has to be addressed.
"We've got a problem that's not going away," Huntington resident Lionel Jones said. "If this Council lets it go, then down the road, people might have to pay $12 a month."
Other residents said the fee addresses a health and public safety concern.
"If there's an emergency, and an ambulance can't get down 5th Avenue because it becomes another Ohio River every time it rains, that delays response times," said Austin Sanders, a 16-year-old who spoke at the meeting. "What business would want to locate here with problems like that?"
Frequent Council combatant Tom McCallister opposed the idea, telling the Council that Williams would be a one-term mayor and most of them would get "tossed out, too" for the decision in the next election.
He also said he believed that the ordinance would not withstand a legal challenge because it was a "thinly-veiled tax."
Williams called on Bob Rodecker, an attorney with the firm of Kay, Casto & Chaney, which, along with other firms, helped the mayor and a work group he formed with crafting the ordinance, to dispute that claim.
Rodecker cited West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals precedents, including the implementation of a storm water fee in the nearby town of Hurricane, which upheld such fees as legal.
One of the cases included a company that sued the city of Huntington for implementing a floodwall division in 1938 -- a year after the 1937 flood that ravaged most of the Tri-State area.
"You've just made history," Williams told the Council after its 10-0 vote. "For 67 years this has been talked about. This was difficult. None of us wanted to impose a fee, but it was the right thing to do."
Follow reporter Ben Fields on Twitter @BenFieldsHD.
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