Huntington Mayor Steve Williams is asking council to impose a quarterly fee on residents and businesses to help pay for equipment and personnel to keep city streets, storm drains and catch basins free of dirt and debris that can aggravate drainage issues and begin a citywide storm sewer mapping project.
Williams plans to introduce the fee, which would be based on square footage, at council's Dec. 23 meeting. He said it would bring in a little more than $1.2 million a year as proposed. While that's not nearly enough to fix the city's decades-old problems with stormwater overflow, Williams said it's a start – and with environmental regulators pressing for results, he said they really don't have much choice.
"People aren't going to like the idea of having to pay for something, but they also don't like not being able to drive across town because of flooding or waking up and finding their basements flooded," he said. "It's time to quit talking and start doing."
Williams blames the flooding on the city's aging sewer system and years of inaction. He said the sewer system mingles storm water and wastes, which during periods of heavy rain causes hazardous overflow in streets, basements and streams. That, in turn, has led to fines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
While dirt and debris in streets and catch basins doesn't necessarily cause the flooding, he said it is a contributing factor. Fixing those issues would have the added benefit of improving appearances, increase property values and boost community pride, he said.
But Williams insists it's just a first step: He said actually coming up with a plan and the money to eradicate the problem citywide is going to take time and a lot of planning. Mapping the city's storm sewer system will be a critical part of that process, he said, pointing out that while there are hundreds of old sewer maps in the basement of City Hall that need digitized, there are sections of the system they know absolutely nothing about. He said that poses serious obstacles to economic development.
"If we take action now, we'll be doing it under our own terms," he said. "If we wait and don't do anything, we're going to have federal and state agencies coming in and telling us what we have to do – we'll lose control. There's a fiscal incentive to making our own decisions."
Under the proposed fee, property owners would pay anywhere from $12 to $300 a quarter, depending on the square footage of their home or business. A property-owner with 2,501-5,000 square feet under roof, for instance, would pay a total of $21 a quarter, while someone with 100,000 or more square feet would be assessed $300 a quarter.
If all goes as planned, the fee would take effect April 1. The first quarterly bill – April to June – would be mailed out May 1.
"That $1.2 million is not even a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done," he said. "But it is enough for us to get started and know what direction we need to go. We can inch forward, put a plan in place as to how we're going to address the low-lying fruit, (knowing) the larger issues are ahead. There's no way we could tackle resolution of the flooding right now, we need to be very careful and make sure folks aren't expecting that. But they will see us out working on things that haven't been addressed in years."