MAR 15

Last month, Mayor Williams delivered his State of the City address along with his proposed city budget for next year (July 1, 2024 – June 30, 2025). Last week, in accordance with the process, the City Council hosted more than four hours of budget hearings over two days where the mayor answered their questions about the budget. In my post “A Response to the Mayor’s State of the City Address” I asked questions that I hoped would be answered in the budget hearings. Here are questions I posed and what I learned by attending the hearings.

The police department currently has 94 sworn officers, but it is budgeted for 108. Filling the budgeted positions would add the equivalent of a full shift to the police force, which would not only help prevent crime but also help hold criminals accountable. What are we doing to accelerate our police officer recruiting and retention efforts so we can get to full strength as quickly as possible?

During the hearing, Phil Watkins, Chief of the Huntington Police Department, did a good job explaining the department’s efforts to improve recruiting and retention. Our police officers are the highest paid in the state. We’ve upgraded our vehicle fleet, removed obstacles to the testing process, started a mentorship program, engaged a professional marketing firm, and are striving to make HPD the premier law enforcement employer in the region. It sounds like we’re moving in the right direction.

My take: There’s a clear link between crime rates and the size of our police force. When the city laid off 11 police officers in 2017, crime predictably spiked. The department’s morale suffered for years, complicating the recruitment of new officers and retention of experienced ones. Consequently, the department dwindled, losing almost 25% of the force by the time it hit a low of 84 officers in 2022. Since then, we’ve made progress in repairing the damage but, despite the improvements, crime and the perception of crime remain big problems in Huntington.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, in 2023 there were 360 violent crimes reported in the city—almost one a day. There were just as many drug offenses (375 reported) and almost five reported property crimes every day (1,780), and these are just the ones that were reported. For a city our size, we have too much violent crime, too much property crime, and too many drug offenses.

We need more police officers to enforce our laws, and we need them now. If elected as mayor, I will strengthen the police force and do everything in my power to accelerate the pace of hiring, put more police officers on the streets, and make Huntington safer.

The proposed budget only funds the demolition program for the first six months of the year and reduces funding from $1,150,000 to $500,000, a decrease of $650,000. Was the funding cut because the city needs the money to fund higher priority projects? If the new mayor wants to continue the program for the second half of the year, where will the funding come from?

Mayor Williams confirmed his plan to allocate funding for the demolition of unsafe buildings for just the first six months of the year. He intends to spend the entire $500,000 budget from July to December 2024, depleting the program’s funds by January 1, 2025. He said that if the incoming mayor wants to continue the program, they will need to pull the funding from other sources.

My take: Abandoned houses lead to blighted neighborhoods, lower property values, and invite crime. They create a nuisance for neighbors and are often the source of house fires creating a safety risk for our firefighters. Even though there’s no planned funding for this program in the second half of the year, if I get elected, I’ll make sure we find a way to keep this important work going.

The “Contributions” budget line, which I presume to be funding for important community organizations, grew from $3,598,942 to $3,811,942, an increase of $213,000. Which organizations benefit from that funding and how do they contribute to addressing the city’s priorities?

Mayor Williams mentioned this topic but did not detail the spending in each line item. These specifics are also missing from the 2024-2025 Proposed Budget document accessible to the public. While the mayor indicated that some of the funding is allocated to the Keith-Albee Performing Arts Center, the food bank, the library, and various neighborhood associations, he did not disclose the complete allocation of funds or fully explain how this spending aligns with his priorities.

My take: In addition to the entities Mayor Williams mentioned, our community is home to numerous outstanding organizations that contribute to making Huntington more vibrant and beautiful. These organizations are integral to the fabric of our city and are a big reason why I love it here. However, without more detailed information on the allocation of funds, it’s challenging to determine if the increased spending compared to previous years represents the most effective use of our city’s resources.

A few more points about my campaign activities this week:

The Carpenters Union Local 439 voted to endorse me, which is a huge boost. I’m honored to have their support because we share a goal of building our community on the principles of safety, investment in our infrastructure, and economic growth.

I love opportunities to speak with voters face-to-face and share my vision for the city. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at a meet-the-candidates event hosted by the Guyandotte Neighborhood Association, as well as at a dinner organized by the Huntington Cabell Republican Women. If there’s an event you’d like me to attend and speak at, please don’t hesitate to extend an invitation.

During the public comment portion of this week’s City Council Meeting (16 minute mark), one resident spoke passionately about a proposed art project that would involve painting the crosswalks of a downtown intersection. That led me to wonder how public art gets approved in the city. I learned that in 2014, the mayor formed the Council on the Arts for the City of Huntington, which then created a Public Art Policy. The policy aims to promote public art on city property by establishing guidelines and an application process for displays. The Public Art Subcommittee evaluates applications and makes recommendations to the mayor, who has the final approval. As the old television public service announcement campaign says, “The More You Know.…”

This isn’t related to my campaign, but assisting with Eagle Scout projects in my sons’ Scout Troop is one of my favorite activities. These projects represent a pivotal moment in the young men’s growth and demonstrate their commitment to community service. This Sunday, Pryce Haynes IV finalized his project that raised the money to buy and then install a tennis backboard at the Huntington High School tennis courts. His perseverance was excellent, and I’m proud of his achievement.

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