Fetters highlights jobs, city ops, neighborhood enhancements in SOC

Huntington Mayor Brooks Fetters expounds on some points in his State of the City address given Friday, Feb. 6, at Café of Hope. The mayor’s speech focused primarily on jobs, city operations and neighborhood enhancement.
Huntington Mayor Brooks Fetters expounds on some points in his State of the City address given Friday, Feb. 6, at Café of Hope. The mayor’s speech focused primarily on jobs, city operations and neighborhood enhancement. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

In a quickly approaching election season, Huntington Mayor Brooks Fetters’ State of the City speech focused primarily on the achievements of the past year in three areas: jobs, city operations and neighborhood enhancements.

About 35 people attended the address, held Friday, Feb. 6, at Café of Hope and hosted in part by the Huntington County Chamber of Commerce.

Fetters said 365 jobs were created in 2014 with the assistance of public dollars or incentives, with an average wage of $16.68 per hour, leaving the city with a 4.8 percent unemployment rate as of December. Private investment in the city was reported at $34.7 million.

“For every dollar of public money leveraged we saw about a $61.66 private investment return on that,” he added.

Fetters cited manufacturers Bendix, CSP, Huntington Aluminum and Echo Lake Foods as companies that have opened doors or expanded their operations in 2014.

The amount of available industrial space has declined from 2.2 million to 135,00 square feet, as industrial operations have moved into existing buildings, he said.

Fetters says he wants to pursue and retain “meaningful jobs” with creation of industrial park space to attract business and the opening of the Regional Learning Center to teach local workers new, more advanced skills.

In the area of what Fetters called “running the city like a business,” he outlined the completion of the federally-mandated wastewater treatment plant improvements project last year, at a cost of $10.4 million, less than the $12.4 million estimated.

The Frederick Street Interceptor sewer project, made necessary by underground limestone south of Park Drive which prohibits separation of sewers, was also completed last year, costing $5.4 million, again less than the $7 million estimate.

In addition, the Rabbit Run Phase I project, costing $13.4 million, less than the original $26 million estimate, with $400,000 in electrical costs, will be completed at the end of this month.

Although the city had been lagging in meeting the mandate requirements previous to Fetters’ administration, he says it is now on track with the long-term sewer plan, at a savings of $16.2 million on the three projects.

“What’s really nice is that Huntington no longer has a big bullseye on it as far as EPA and IDEM are concerned,” Fetters said. “All these kinds of things have ways of affecting things down into the future. What I’m pleased to share is we’re doing what needs to be done and we’re hitting our compliance marks, and we’re saving rate payers a gob of money.”

Fetters also addressed the three sewer rate increases levied on customers in less than 22 months, blaming that on the city not having gotten the projects done in time. A project that will be started this year to renovate four flap gates on the combined sewer operation (CSO) outfall along the river, which he estimated to cost between $250,000 and $300,000, will not result in any rate increase to customers, Fetters said.

The flap gates make sure that river water does not back up into the sewer system and flood basements and houses. That project should be completed by the end of this year, Fetters says.

Fetters added the city had no sewer-related violations during the past year.

Fetters said the number of city employees is down nearly 17 percent, from 156 in 2012 to 130 in 2014. Seven of those employees were lost when the combined emergency dispatch included them under the county’s wing. The city still provides about 60 percent of the cost of combined dispatch, he said.

The general fund surplus in 2013 was $1.4 million and $1.29 million in 2014, Fetters said. The mayor said $625,000 of the 2014 surplus was put into the city’s self-funded insurance fund. Another $1.2 million was used to reconstruct 6.4 miles of city streets, 1,641 feet of sidewalks and 225 ADA-compliant curb ramps.

“We just continue to do more with less, defined in the private sector just as you find in the public sector, when you can bring automation into the work, you have higher-skilled people that get more work done with the equipment that’s available,” he said.

Under neighborhood enhancements, Fetters announced the city razed 15 structures, including some of the H.K. Porter buildings, a brownfield property on Sabine Street containing eight buildings which he said have been a community eyesore for years.

Downtown improvements include the city’s search for a buyer for the former UB Building, which Fetters said will be razed if one can’t be found. The former Lehman building, which once housed the Wolf & Dessauer Department Store, will be razed, and turned into Rotary Centennial Park in partnership with the Huntington Rotary Club, which will donate $125,000 to the project.

Next on the list was the city’s trails system. The mayor cited the Little River Trail Section 3, completed in November as a part of the Frederick Street improvement project, and the Erie Rail Trail Bridge, estimated to be completed in May.

Trails and greenways are also near the top of Fetter’s list of 2015 plans, including creating trails so people can walk or ride bikes to their place of employment. Section 4 of the trail is scheduled to start in April, going from LaFontaine Street along the Little River and connecting to the Erie Rail Trail Bridge.

Fetters also said his volunteerism program incorporated 761 volunteers last year, doing such tasks as painting park buildings, rehabbing picnic tables and repairing the candy cane Christmas decorations. The combined work saved the city $180,065, he said.

“What’s even more important than that, is that it engages people to invest in themselves in a community that they call home,” he said. “That goes back to helping people love the place where they live.”

More of Fetters’ future plans include improving streets, including alleys, gateways, corridor and sidewalk improvements; continued redevelopment of the Erie-Market business area and what he called “critical sites,” including the H.K. Porter and UB buildings. He also proposed creating neighborhood associations in the Old Plat, Drovertown and Hawley Heights neighborhoods.

Operational efficiency goals include using the “Smart City” initiative brought to Huntington by Schneider Electric, devising continuous improvement processes in which the “savings fund the improvements.” Fetters mentioned plans to harvest methane from the city landfill and sell it. He also put street light conversions to LED lighting on his list and added route optimizations for city vehicles including garbage trucks, snow plows and police cars.

Fetters also said the launching of a city-wide newsletter keeps residents informed of the goings-on in town, along with Facebook posts and YouTube videos, called “Hanging with the Mayor.”