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Additional study ordered for Huntington storm water fee

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By JAMES E. CASTO
For The State Journal

Faced with approving or rejecting a proposed storm water fee, Huntington City Council decided not to decide.

Instead, a stormy City Council session Jan. 13 saw council vote to refer the controversial fee to its finance committee for additional study. Council's action pleased neither Mayor Steve Williams, who proposed the fee, nor an angry crowd of protesters who made it clear they wanted the fee rejected outright. 

When Councilman David Ball made a motion to send the fee to the finance committee for study, that meant discussion at the meeting could only address Ball's motion, not the fee ordinance itself. It didn't set well with the protesters who came to voice their opposition to the fee. 

Tom McCallister, a frequent critic of Huntington city government, blasted the fee ordinance and charged that the finance committee "doesn't have a clue" how to handle it. A heated verbal exchange between Ball and McCallister ensued, with McCallister ultimately inviting Ball to meet him outside in the hall and settle things. In response, Ball got out of his chair, removed his jacket and had to be restrained from leaving the chamber. 

Williams asked council to give the ordinance back to him and a work group he had assembled rather than sending it to the finance committee. Even though council ignored his request, Williams said he would continue to meet with his work group to discuss how the ordinance might be amended. 

The property storm water fee would be levied on property owners and would range from $4 to $100 per month, based on the square footage of each property. It's estimated to raise $1.2 million a year.

Williams has said the money would enable the city to make a long-overdue start on addressing the decades-old flooding of Huntington's underpasses and some streets during periods of heavy rain. Initially, he says, the city would hire personnel and purchase equipment for street sweeping and unplugging catch basins and begin a citywide sewer-mapping project.

The city's aging sewer system combines both sewage and storm water. This means that street flooding doesn't just snarl traffic. it also creates a health hazard when the sewers overflow with hazardous waste. That's attracted the attention of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is demanding the city take corrective action.

It's anticipated that separating the city's sanitary sewers and storm sewers could cost tens of millions of dollars.

"That $1.2 million isn't even a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done," Williams says. "But it's enough for us to get started. People don't 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. It's time to quit talking and start doing."