HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – In his State of the City address Wednesday, Mayor Steve Williams said citizens must come together to work through the city’s budget problem, even after the elimination of 24 firefighters and police officers last month.
“I understand the anger and frustration,” Williams said. “Twenty-four families have been directly affected by our financial challenges, but anger and frustration can be expressed without maligning one another.”
In front of citizens and the Huntington City Council, Williams discussed the challenges facing the city, as well as his proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal years.
Prior to Williams gave his speech, the city council voted in favor of using the city’s rainy day fund to cut its budget deficit from from $2.2 million to a projected $122,000. The council had voted against a similar proposal at its meeting Monday. This updated version moved around $192,000 from the mayor’s office and the civic center to the police and fire departments.
If the money was not put towards the departments, the fire department would have run out of money by the end of March and the police department by mid-May.
Huntington’s budget problems are primarily related to three things: rising health insurance costs, increasing pension payments and overspending by departments, particularly the fire and police departments
Williams said Huntington is a successful city, having previously been recognized for how it has addressed the opioid epidemic, as well as pushing business development and the arts.
He said Huntington cannot make little plans, but with stagnant revenue, there is very little relief in the city’s financial challenges. He also said the best way to combat budgetary problems is increasing revenue into the city.
“Increased revenues are necessary to combat the demands that are placed on our city’s aging
infrastructure and on our fire and police departments,” Williams said. “We must be aggressive in creating new revenue streams while doing everything – everything we can – to avoid raising fees or taxes.”
Williams said 45 percent of the budget goes to fund health care benefits and pensions, adding the city is proposing reducing spending to 25 percent of the budget. Williams said the health care plan can be changed in April.
Williams said the police and fire departments are experiencing financial stress because of the opioid epidemic.
“Murders are up,” Williams said. “Overdoses are up. Overdose deaths are up.”
One solution Williams said he may explore is receiving federal funding from the federal government as part of the 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law by then-President Barack Obama last December.
The law provides $1 billion in grants to communities affected by the opioid epidemic.
Williams said he is also trying to secure a grant to rehire laid-off firefighters.
Costs for events are also an issue. While Williams acknowledged the benefits of festivals and fitness-related events, he said it comes with a price, noting how the police department spent more than $142,000 to staff special events.
“Our charges to staff these events fall well, well below what surrounding communities such as Ashland, Barboursville and Charleston charge,” Williams said.
At the end of his address, Williams urged cooperation from the community, saying it is important for people to act respectfully towards one another during this period.