Sewer rate increase in Huntington receives preliminary approval

An increase in sewer rates received preliminary approval Tuesday, Nov. 14, by the Huntington Common Council, which also heard a recommendation that all tobacco be banned in city parks, a plea to strengthen protections for animals and a suggestion that an ordinance banning “electronic invasion of privacy” be instituted.

The new sewer rates, put in place to finance ongoing improvements to the city's sewage treatment system, could receive the council's final approval during its next meeting on Nov. 28. They would go into effect the first full billing period after adoption.

With the new fees — which represent a restructuring in the way bills are figured — a customer using what is considered the average of 4,000 gallons of water a month would see a 28 percent increase in sewage fees, from $44.88 a month to $57.64 a month.

A residential customer currently paying the minimum sewage fee of $14.38 a month would see that fee jump 73 percent to $24.88, while rates for large volume industrial users would increase by 16 percent to 17 percent.

Two city residents spoke out against the increase, with Gary Grimes arguing that the money spent on the development of a trail system “used by a handful of people” should have been directed toward the sewage treatment system improvements, which “benefit the whole.”

Hobart Bennett asked the council to “try to find some other way to pay for things.”

The work could have been funded by property taxes, council member Charles Chapman said, but he said he believes user fees are a more fair way to pay for the improvements. The water and sewage systems should be able to stand on their own, supported by fees paid by their users, he said.

And the project — mandated by state and federal government — won't get any cheaper if it's delayed, he said.

“If we avoid taking care of it now, you're just putting off what you're going to have to pay for later with inflated dollars,” he said.

In addition, City Attorney Mike Hartburg said, the city could be fined up to $25,000 for each day it's not in compliance with its plan to keep raw sewage out of area rivers.

In two related actions, the council approved the issuance of up to $14 million in bonds to pay for this phase of the sewage project and gave preliminary approval to an updated ordinance governing the operation of the sewage treatment utility. One of the major changes sets out new regulations for industries who must pre-treat contaminants before discharging them to the city's treatment facility.

The proposal to ban all tobacco use — including cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes — was presented to the council by council member Erin Covey, who served on a subcommittee established to study tobacco use in the parks. The ban was initially suggested to the council this summer by a city resident.

Council members voted unanimously to go forward with a ban, asking Hartburg to draft an ordinance that it will consider at a future meeting.

Andrew Norman, representing a group of people concerned with animal welfare, asked the council to consider updating the city's 1986 ordinance setting out standards of care for animals. He said he's talked with the mayor and police chief and presented a proposed ordinance to the assistant city attorney, and now wanted to “start a conversation” with the council.

He wants to see the council enact “laws that can be enforced,” he said, “so our furry community members aren't abused.”

Aaron Mason's request that the council consider an ordinance banning “electronic invasion of privacy” stemmed from a dispute with a neighbor over security cameras pointed at Mason's house, he said, but Mayor Brooks Fetters said the increasing use of drones could also warrant such an ordinance.

For now, Fetters said, Mason's situation should be handled as a civil matter, but he promised to take new regulations into consideration.

“We'll look into it, and we'll respond,” Fetters said.

In other business:

• Council gave final approval to an ordinance allowing the city's Board of Public Works and Safety to be made up of the mayor and either two or four additional members appointed by the mayor. Currently, the board is made up of the mayor and only two other appointed members.

• Council gave preliminary approval to the vacation of an alley on the east side of First Street near U.S.-24. The undeveloped alley is on property owned by Gerald Ingle, who requested the vacation.