Huntington Mayor Steve Williams delivered the State of the City address Friday, presenting a budget which he said he is proud of and which “reflects the heart of the community.”
The budget, Williams said, is expected to include a $6 million surplus for the second consecutive year.
“The budget presented to you is flat, but we are going to continue to be ambitious in our aspirations,” Williams said. “Our priorities are safety, efficiency and innovation.”
A problem Huntington and many other places in West Virginia have seen, he said, is the perception that their communities are unwelcoming to diversity.
“Huntington has begun to receive national recognition for our efforts in advancing our values as a diverse and welcoming community,” Williams said. “I believe we are long overdue to reconstitute the Huntington Human Rights Commission that was abandoned over ten years ago.”
The ordinance is technically still in effect, he said, but the commission has no board members. Williams said he will be recommending members to City Council soon, in return for an inclusion in the budget of a “modest allocation for staffing” for the Human Rights Commission.
Williams also presented plans for economic development in various project areas across the city, mostly funded by the $3 million prize the city was awarded after winning the America’s Best Communities Competition in 2017.
“The $3 million prize from the ABC competition has proven to be an enabler beyond what we may have imagined,” Williams said.
Project areas, he said, include vacant factories and a declining neighborhood in Highlawn, a lack of traffic and abundance of dilapidated buildings on the West End, thriving commercial enterprises intertwined with a declining neighborhood in Fairfield and becoming a gigabit city (a city with high-speed broadband internet).
The city’s continuing efforts to deploy high-speed broadband internet and other modern technological developments throughout Huntington are beginning to show results, in the form of currently pending state legislation that would lead to a “tremendous announcement,” Williams said.
“We are pleased to announce that AT&T, upon the passing of this legislation, has committed that Huntington will be the first city in West Virginia to deploy 5G (a technological innovation improving internet speeds),” Williams said.
During the address, Williams also spoke of various diminishing crime rates throughout the city, including murder being down by over 50 percent, robberies by over 30 percent, aggravated assault and violent crime by more than 20 percent and total offenses by over 18 percent.
“The results speak for themselves,” Williams said. “We are not where we want to be, but we are trending in the right direction.”
Williams also presented improvements in paying pensions to city police and firefighters and plans to construct an additional two fire departments in the city, one being a replacement for the station on 20th Street and Sixth Avenue.
Additionally, Williams said, proposed contracts for union leaders and administrative personnel would include a 2 percent raise and a guaranteed insurance program for three years.
“Our employees deserve a pay raise and deserve the certainty of knowing their healthcare plan is not going to be changed in three years,” Williams said. “They deserve it, and we can afford it.”
Stressing the importance of cooperation between community leaders, Williams praised Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert and the relationship between the city and the university.
“Marshall University is the partnership we rely upon,” Williams said.
Partially, for this reason, Williams said, there is a necessity for new street lights along Hal Greer Boulevard. Hal Greer Boulevard, he said, is a “major artery” into Huntington and Marshall. The city planning and zoning department estimated at least 150 lights, including security lighting in the underpass, are needed between Washington Boulevard and Third Avenue, he said.
Additionally, Williams said $2.3 million will be provided for paving improvements and $2.5 million for street repair and construction, sidewalk construction and emergency repairs for 2020. 100 buildings were also targeted for demolition in 2019, and some have already been demolished, Williams said.
“Finance, public works, police and fire lay the foundation for economic prosperity in our community,” Williams said.
The addiction epidemic, which has taken over towns like Huntington throughout the nation, was the final topic Williams discussed before concluding his address.
“We were once known as the epicenter of the epidemic,” Williams said “We are now acknowledged as the epicenter of the solution.”
Huntington and its various local, innovative programs, like Lily’s Place, the Provider Response Organization for Addiction Care and Treatment and Project Hope, have been reviewed by several prominent U.S. officials including the U.S. surgeon general, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the director of the National Office of Drug Control Policy, he said.
Huntington was also one of nine cities that received a $1 million grant from the Bloomberg Foundation to “create a solution to address a significant problem that could be replicated around the world.”
The other cities that received the grant were Los Angeles, California; Denver, Colorado; Fort Collins, Colorado; Georgetown, Texas; South Bend, Indiana; Durham, North Carolina; New Rochelle, New York and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected]