Finances back to comfortable levels, says Fetters

Finances in the city of Huntington are once again on an even keel.

Spending reductions and policy changes implemented since plummeting property tax revenues wreaked havoc with the city's bottom line in 2008 and 2009 have pushed the year-end general fund balance for 2012 back up to comfortable levels - and that bodes well for the city's future, Mayor Brooks Fetters says.

"We are able to make decisions and move forward as a community in the context of relative financial stability as opposed to financial crisis," he says.

In other words, Fetters adds, "We make better decisions when we have some wiggle room."

The financial slide was precipitated when local property tax appeals and state changes in property tax laws left the city with less income than it had counted on.

Cities and towns receive that revenue in two installments - mid-year, with that check used to fund the current year's budget, and at the end of the year, with that money figured in to the following year's budget.

Before the year-end check was deposited in 2008, the general fund balance was more than $1.6 million in the red; by 2009, the negative balance increased to nearly $2.2 million.

Then-Mayor Steve Updike ordered layoffs of 12 city employees, including six firefighters, and convinced the Huntington Common Council to approve a trash collection fee in an effort to make up for some of the lost property tax revenue.

By the end of 2010, the city's general fund was just under $1 million in the red; the first positive balance in four years was recorded in 2011, when the city's general fund ended the year with just $8,756 to spare.

At the end of 2012, Clerk-Treasurer Christ Scher says, the general fund had a balance of $1.3 million.

"That's the most I've seen since I've been clerk," Scher says. "We've come a long way holding the line."

That figure represents about 17 percent of the city's annual $8 million general fund budget, and that's the amount of cushion Fetters says is recommended by the State Board of Accounts and the state's Department of Local Government Finance.

Fetters says it's impossible to attribute the turnaround to any one specific action.

"I think it's a variety of things," he says, pointing to a collaborative effort by city leaders, department heads and employees. "There's rarely any one line item that will save the day."

That collaborative effort extended outside the city, he points out, as city and county officials and economic development leaders worked to fill vacant industrial space that proved "devastating" to tax revenues in 2008.

City department heads returned to the general fund nearly $230,000 in money that had been budgeted, but not spent, in 2012, Fetters says.

Personnel and equipment expenses were reduced, with the city beginning 2012 with 156 employees and ending the year with just 148. And the number of vehicles and pieces of equipment owned by the city was reduced from 143 to 130 during the year, he says.

Full implementation of automated trash pickup, a project begun under the Updike administration, has reduced the number of man hours required to pick up trash from 300 a week to just 98. That frees city employees to perform other jobs around the city, he says, such as taking down dead trees and maintaining streets.

More cost-saving measures are yet to come, he says, including the closure of the Cherry Street fire station, the combination of city and county emergency dispatch operations and the move of an ambulance station from a former fire station building on South Jefferson Street to the Etna Avenue fire station. The South Jefferson building will be sold and placed back on the tax rolls, Fetters says.

City leaders will continue to examine revenues and expenses and look for ways to be more efficient, he says.

"We're working hard every day, but there are always going to be problems," Fetters says. "There are so many things beyond local control."