Photo by Cindy Klepper.
The mayor's message: Times are tough, but he's doing the best he can to provide essential services to residents of Huntington, IN.
"I'm going to fight for my police department; I'm going to fight for my fire department; I'm going to fight for the people who need services," Mayor Steve Updike told members of the Huntington Rotary Club during his annual State of the City address on Tuesday, Jan. 20.
Updike took office a little more than a year ago, and he's been hit hard his first year.
State property tax caps have cut into the city's revenue, jobs have disappeared and the immediate future doesn't look much better, he notes.
"Huntington city was predicted to lose $550,000 for this year," Updike says, referring to the loss in revenue resulting from property tax caps. Next year, he says, the loss to city revenues could be as much as $854,000. "There's no way I can make it."
Even so, he says, he's going ahead with some costly improvements the city needs, including a couple that were initiated by previous administrations.
"You can be mad at me, but it needs to be done, and I'm doing it," he says.
In his sights are improvements to Etna Avenue from the South Side Fire Station to Horace Mann Elementary School, a $5.2 million project; a new water line running from city wells to the treatment plant, a $360,000 project; a new well field and water plant to serve the north side of Huntington, with the city already having spent $400,000 to acquire property; and separation of the first half-dozen of 15 sewer lines that carry both stormwater and waste, a project that will ultimately cost $30 to $50 million.
Updike admits it's probably the last thing city taxpayers want to hear in the current economy, given what's happened in the past year.
During Updike's first year in office, Five Star Distributing left Huntington; Stride Rite announced it, too, was leaving, putting between 140 and 180 people out of work. The loss of CFM Industries meant 280 jobs; Meridian Automotive left, taking with it 180 jobs.
The news on the job front, though, wasn't as bad as it could have been, Updike says.
Damage from a June fire at Good Humor-Breyers was minimal, thanks to the actions of the Huntington Fire Department - actions that prevented more severe damage that could have resulted in the ice cream plant leaving town, the mayor says.
Updike says that a corporate representative who came to Huntington after the fire told him, "If that building would have burned down, we would have moved. Your fire department kept this building in Huntington and kept us running."
And the Huntington Bendix plant was selected for a new production line over another plant in Elyria, OH, Updike says. Updike praised Mark Wickersham, executive director of Huntington County United Economic Development, for putting together a package that convinced Bendix to put the line in Huntington.
After that meeting, Updike says, a Bendix representative who had sat through Wickersham's presentation told him, "I don't know where you got him, but you better hang on to him. That's the best presentation I've seen."
Those victories, though, don't take away the sting of having to improve services with less revenue, Updike says.
City employees didn't get pay raises; budgets were cut; four city employees and one police officer who left haven't been replaced; higher gas prices cost the city an additional $50,000 in 2008; the price of salt went from $56 to $122 a ton.
But the fire department's insurance rating improved, which could lead to a drop in insurance rates for Huntington businesses, Updike says. And Updike is kicking around the idea of hiring a private company to pick up garbage, although, he says, "I don't see how anybody could do it cheaper than we're doing it."
Updike says he won't cut the police or fire department to cut expenses, despite calls for him to do so.
"If you live in the city, you wouldn't want me to cut fire protection," he says. Even people who live in the county, but have businesses in the city or work or go to school in the city, need that protection, he says.
"For people to sit outside the city and say ‘You need to cut' is beyond me," Updike says. "We're all headed for the same thing, and that's the well-being of Huntington County."
There is a very bright spot, Updike says - the possibility that Nature's Fuel, a company that wants to convert garbage into green energy, will locate at the Huntington Landfill.
"Our salvation, our downfall, our hope is Nature's Fuel," he says. "This is on the cutting cutting edge of green.
"If it goes through, it's going to take off everywhere."