City finds 'stop-gap' to keep 2010 budget in black; seeks long-term solutions

A bare-bones spending plan, concessions from employees and an infusion of cash from city savings accounts may be enough to keep Huntington's 2010 budget in the black -- but more needs to be done, noted Mayor Steve Updike.

"This is a stop-gap; it's not a long-term solution," Updike told members of the Huntington Common Council on Tuesday, Dec. 8. "We're keeping the wheels slowly turning, but we're not answering the long-term question."

The long-term problem, Updike reiterated, is that the city's revenues are dropping while expenses remain nearly unchanged. The financial crisis came to a head last month when city officials learned that some $1.4 million it had expected in property tax revenues would not be coming in because it had been refunded to city property owners who had successfully appealed their assessments. A dozen city employees, half of them firefighters, lost their jobs as city officials struggled to cut spending.

But the appeals -- and 120 of them have yet to be decided -- are only partly to blame for the city's declining revenues. Changes made by the state legislature will continue to adversely affect the amount of money the city can raise through property taxes.

Fees for services provided to city residents could provide a new stream of income, Updike believes. His proposal to charge city residents a monthly trash fee was rejected by council last month, but at least some council members seemed willing to consider imposing other fees.

Councilman Steve McIntyre suggested charging a fee when city police unlock a car; Police Chief Tom Emely proposed a wrecker fee; and Wayne Huff, president of the firefighters' union, said insurance companies could be billed when the department responds to fires.

"If you can find any kind of fee we can go after," Updike implored city department heads, "contact Mr. McIntyre."

While no fees were formally proposed during the Dec. 8 meeting, council members did approve using money from the city's riverboat and Rainy Day funds to cover expenses in 2010. In return, Updike pledged that no more city employees would be laid off -- at least until the city receives state certification of its 2010 budget, which will give city officials a better idea of its probable income for the year. That certification is expected to be returned in February or March, Clerk-Treasurer Christi Scher said.

"I will promise you that, until we get that form, I won't lay anybody off," Updike said.

City employees have done their part to balance the budget, Updike said. Longevity pay has been frozen to 2009 levels, saving $37,800; the city won't contribute to employee retirement plans in 2010, saving $68,500; and employees will pay an additional $60 a month for their health insurance, bringing in $92,000.

The second major proposal presented to council -- the elimination of the park board -- was unanimously rejected, although council members did not rule out considering that possibility in the future.

"I don't see it as a productive way to move at this point in time," Councilman Brooks Fetters said.

Fetters wants to conduct a comprehensive study of the efficiency of all city operations before making any changes, a sentiment echoed by Councilman Joe Blomeke.
McIntyre, too, said he believes a study is needed but doesn't want to pay an outside firm to conduct the study.

"I'm finalizing a task force to look at city finances," McIntyre said. He says he can find people willing to do a study at no cost.

A representative of the city's financial consulting company is expected to attend council's next meeting, Dec. 29 at 6:45 a.m., to present its proposal for conducting the study.