City Responds to WSAZ Inquiry through Facebook; Some Responders Skeptical

Updated 31 weeks ago Edited by Tony Rutherford from Multiple Reports

City Responds to WSAZ Inquiry through Facebook; Some Responders Skeptical
City of Huntington graphic
Less than a week ago, WSAZ asked the City of Huntington for specific use details on the city service fee, specifically the funds intended to increase the members of the police force. 

City Council Woman Joyce Clark has asked the Finance Department to prepare a public report for the May 13 meeting.

Individual council members, except Rebecca Howell, declined to go on camera. Chairman Mark Bates indicated that the reporter had a negative tone but he would have assisted if the story had a positive spin. 

(Editor's Note: See PDF attachment City Service Fee Report 2003-2015 BELOW)

 

The fee "response" is as follows: (graphic included on page)

The City of Huntington's budget includes 41 different sources of revenue. The second largest source of revenue is the City Service Fee, also known as the user fee. According to the ordinance that established the City Service Fee, it can only be used for police protection and traffic and street maintenance. The user fee will generate approximately $8.2 million this fiscal year. Here is a breakdown of where that money goes and, most importantly, how it benefits you..." (graphic)

Link to City of Huntington past budgets , revisions, and audits:

http://www.cityofhuntington.com/document-center/finance

Former council chair and announced candidate for Mayor, Scott Caserta wrote on FB:

And here’s the whole truth !

This is one reason why I’m running for Mayor 2020. Trust ! You should get what you pay for ! Watch the story, Dan Klein did a great job revealing the truth.

In 2015: (Scott Caserta who said at the time, "I can't trust this administration to do with money what they say they're going to do)..."

Regarding putting user fee funds in the general fund, Caserta added: 

City Responds to WSAZ Inquiry through Facebook; Some Responders Skeptical

"When the decision was made to move the revenue created into the General Fund, they began violating the original Ordinance.

772.04 - IMPOSITION OF CITY SERVICE FEE


Section (b) The director of the division of finance SHALL place all fees collected under this article in a separate account."

 

WSAZ LINK:

https://www.wsaz.com/content/news/WSAZ-Investigates--User-fees-Wheres-the-money-509289781.html?fbclid=IwAR1aS2N3bEbMpOjFb9d7765Jm1_3PV1R3dkbLzTUT37q5TtD-YIjGkIa7hE

 

TRANSCRIPT:

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- West Virginia's largest cities take several dollars from every one of your paychecks to help fund police and roads. Even if you live in Kentucky or Ohio, it doesn't matter.

Huntington has the largest user fee of all at $5 a week or $260 a year, whether you make millions or minimum wage.
The last time the fee went up, some City Council members say the extra income would help fund up to 20 more police officers. But almost four years later, the city has fewer officers than it did back then.
The mayor and city officials refuse to talk with us about it.
It's a WSAZ investigation we've been working on for almost 18 months.
"This is not intended to balance the budget," said Huntington Mayor Steve Williams in 2015 as he asked council to raise the city's user fee from $3 to $5 a week.
"Nothing to do with balancing our budget,” said City Councilman Dave Ball at the time. “The only way we can get more community policing done and accomplished is to have more police officers."
The police department even presented a needs list of 20 That PowerPoint presentation is something that current city Councilwoman Rebecca Howe still remembers.
“Yes, I was there when they showed it."
More than that, Howe said she was told it could be fully funded with the increase, bringing the police force up to 122 officers.
“That's what they told us. But I did not believe them," she said.
She was one of the two no votes. But the increase passed anyway, even over the objections of manyresidents who voiced disapproval.
The other no vote was Scott Caserta who said at the time, "I can't trust this administration to do with money what they say they're going to do."
Fast forward almost four years.
Our investigation found the user fee brought in $7.8 million in revenue last fiscal year, $3.1 million more than it did in fiscal year 2015, the last full year before the increase.
The city spent $13.8 million on police and street construction in 2015. Last year, the city spent $15.7 million on those two things.
If you do the math, the city increased spending on police and road constructions by $1.9 million, not the additional $3.1 million the increased fee generated.
If the city had budgeted the same amount from the general fund and added the full $3.1 million, it would have brought spending up to $16.9 million.
But again, at the time, Mayor Williams said, "this is not intended to balance the budget."
As for the number of budgeted police officers, it's gone down, from 112 in fiscal 2015 to 103 in fiscal 2018.
The fiscal year runs from July 1 of the previous year to June 30. So for fiscal 2018, that is from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018.
While in fiscal 2019 it went up to 108 budgeted positions, there's only 92 on the payroll with several on injured or military leave.
By not having 16 officers on payroll currently, it saves an estimated $726,000 just on salary. That figure is arrived by dividing the $4.853 million for 107 officers (not including the chief) for a $45,000 average multiplied by 16.
"Aggravated,” said Howe. “They ain't got it. They got 91. They got less right now than they had then."
City officials said the savings from fewer salaries is spent on things like overtime for current officers, equipment and vehicles. The department purchased 10 vehicles this year and plans to buy five more in the next fiscal year.
We met up with Dave Ball who is no longer on council.
"Did it cost me the election? Absolutely it did,” he said.
Ball lost in the primary less than eight months after he sponsored the ordinance to increase the use fee.
But he’s not upset about it, believing still it was the right thing to do.
His take of the list of HPD needs back then differs from Howe's and Caserta’s.
"I looked at it more as a wish list," Ball said.
His view is the City Council sets the budget. It's up to the department head, in this case the police chief, to determine where to spend it, even if the combined police and streets budget does not match the extra money the user fee brings in.
"I'm OK with it as long as they're getting accomplished the things we said we would,” Ball said. “If the chief says he can do it with fewer, that's fine too."
But even with the user fee hike, Huntington police had to lay off 11 police officers in January 2017. That's the same year the city reported a record number of homicides.
At that time, in a WSAZ investigation, Mayor Williams called the fee a firewall.
"The intent was that it was going to help us to be able to hire some additional people. That was the intent,” Williams said.
And without the user fee, the city could have seen a lot fewer numbers.
“Oh yeah, it's frightening," he said.
But Howe isn't surprised by the numbers.
"I didn't believe it then and I don't believe it now," she said.
While Caserta was not available because of a family medical issue, he stands behind what he said four years ago that, "this was a trust issue."
Our WSAZ investigation finds an additional issue.
The wording of the ordinance states the revenue from user fee shall go into a separate account. But Huntington puts it into the general fund where it only shows up as a separate line item.
"There should be no dispute," said Troy Giatras, a Charleston-based lawyer with The Giatras Law Firm.
Giatras has 30 years experience including as a city attorney who has both written and interpreted legislation. He said the city is not in compliance with its own code.
"It appears on its face very clear, very unambiguous,” Giatras said. “It is a very small sentence. It has very few words and it has the word “shall" in it."
In an email, the Huntington Finance Director said state code prevents them from keeping a separate account, but Giatras disagrees.
"I did not read anything that spoke about a special account, either setting one up or prohibiting the setting of a special account up,” he said.
In fact, we found the city of Parkersburg which has a similar fee keeps it in a separate account.
Other cities can tell you exactly where their revenue has gone. For example, Morgantown has hired 10 officers and 20 vehicles since 2014.
But our WSAZ investigation finds Huntington does no such accounting. They tell us because the expenses for the police department and street maintenance are more than revenue from the user fee, that's unnecessary.
No one from the city would agree to be interviewed for this story even after several attempts. Instead city attorney Scott Damron released a statement which says in part "it has always collected, accounted for and spent the fee revenue in accordance with local ordinances and with state law."
To read the full statement or see a partial list of street construction projects, scroll to the bottom of this story. To see a more complete list of street construction projects, click on the Related Documents to the right.
We also tried to talk to Mayor Williams at a recent neighborhood walk with the mayor, but he declined.
"We've never hidden anything from you all,” Williams said. “We've given all the information we have."
Mark Bates and Joyce Clark, the only two people still on council who voted for the increase, refused to be interviewed as well.
As for Howe, there's too much crime.
"Unsafe, this is an unsafe city at this point," she said.
Ball said Williams’ words of "this is not intended to balance the budget,” is not a promise.
“Not on your life."
But is frustrated by a commitment she believes is unfulfilled.
"Violated as a citizen because I have to pay the fees too you know."
After we called Joyce Clark a couple weeks ago, she asked the city to give a report at the next Finance Committee meeting. She and Mark Bates don’t want to talk until that happens. That is set for May 13.
The president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, Lieutenant Phil Watkins, also declined to be interviewed for this story.
There's one more issue, too.
Case law is very clear. Cities can charge fees to provide a specific service. They cannot collect taxes to get general revenue.
Giatras said, based on our findings, if the city would want to increase the user fee at some future date, it's possible it could be challenged in court because despite its name, “user fee,” it's a de facto tax.
The user fee began in Huntington in 2002 at $1 a week when David Felinton was mayor. It was doubled the next year to $2 a week and increased to $3 a week in 2009, this time under Mayor Kim Wolfe.
The user fee for Charleston is $3 a week. The last increase happened just over a year ago on Jan. 1, 2018. It’s also expected to generate $7.8 million a year.
Parkersburg stands at $2.50 a week and is used for police, fire, street and other municipal services. It’s expected to general $2.26 million this year.
Morgantown is at $3 a week and is divided between police, streets and public works.
Huntington officials list 111 individual paving projects between 2015 and 2018. There are 47 more underway in the current fiscal year totaling 6.3 miles at a cost of $1.6 million. There are all divided into each council district, including portions of Elmwood Avenue in District 8 and Jefferson Avenue in District 2.
There have also been 22 bridge repair, road slip or culvert replacement projects between 2015 and 2018 with 7 more scheduled in the current fiscal year at a cost of $2.5 million. Two of the biggest are Edgemont Road in 2017 and Hilltop Road this year which is expected to cost $1 million by itself.
The full statement from Huntington City Attorney Scott Damron:
“Since the City of Huntington implemented the User Fee in 2002, it has always collected, accounted for and spent the fee revenue in accordance with local ordinances and with state law. This can be verified by the fact that the City has never been cited for improper collection, accounting of or expenditure of the User Fee in any state audit.
“All funds collected from the User Fee are expended for police protection and street maintenance. In the 2020 budget for example, the projected revenue from the fee is $8,300,000. The projected budget for the Police Department is $14,536,758, and the projected budget for street maintenance is $2,450,000. So, for 2020, the User Fee is anticipated to contribute 48.86% of those combined costs. Therefore, every dollar of the User Fee that is collected is appropriated to the correct municipal expense.
“The use of the funds generated by the User Fee is transparent, and it can be easily identified in the revenue and expense line items of our budget. We agree that it is always incumbent upon us to promote how the public’s User Fee dollars benefit the community, but we wholeheartedly reject any assertion that we are not collecting, accounting for or expending the User Fee in accordance with local ordinances or state law. Anyone who makes this assertion isn’t familiar with the law and doesn’t understand proper accounting procedures.”

 

MARK BATES (Facebook comment)

Mark A. Bates In my 11 years of service on Huntington City Council, I have always been transparent, willing to listen , willing to compromise, and willing to speak to the media when no one else wanted to. I have always felt that my duty as Chairman was to convey the will of Council , and to best articulate that will to the public. I was contacted by Dan Klein from WSAZ about a story about the “user fee” a couple weeks ago , and after chatting with him briefly , it was obvious that he was on a witch hunt that I wasn’t prepared for. I told him that I would gladly participate in a story of a positive spin on what services the user fee provides citizens and workers within the city, however that wasn’t where he wanted to go with this story. I then requested that the Finance Committee request data from the Mayor to show where the amount of money that had come in from the additional user fee and how it had been spent . The committee gave them until the next meeting ( 3 weeks ) to gather the data. Joyce Clark and I told Dan that upon review of that data we would gladly talk to him on camera. 



After viewing his 8 minute “investigative report” tonight, his intentions became very obvious. If it wasn’t about sensationalism and ratings , why the rush ? By their own admission they have worked on this story for 18 months , what’s a couple extra weeks matter to get accurate data ? I have always been open to help reporters and anchors at WSAZ with stories , well that has ended as of tonight. 

 Agreeing with Bates, a FB poster wrote:

"...All the data they are requesting are public documents, such as the budget. A simple FOIA request would get anyone the data they want. If people want to go down a different path with their own agenda, rather than looking at the facts, that's called sensationalism, and Bates was right to call it out..."

 

Other comments 


In 2015 , Caserta called for an audit primarily related to a special payment to former police chief Skip Holbrook:

Conflicting legal opinions and interpretations were involved. That year's audit did not flag the payment either. 

 http://www.huntingtonnews.net/114075

Link to  select HNN stories interviewing Kim Wolfe (former mayor): 

http://www.huntingtonnews.net/145548

http://www.huntingtonnews.net/144549  Wolfe Breaks Silence (2016)

  1. Service Fee Report (151.41 KB)
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