The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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July 4, 2014

Lewisburg home rule application rests on six points to be presented

LEWISBURG — Only 16 of the 23 cities that have applied will make the cut when the West Virginia Municipal Home Rule Board selects participants for phase II of the pilot program in the state’s self-government experiment.

“I think everybody who submitted an application is optimistic about being chosen,” said John Manchester, mayor of Lewisburg, one of the candidate cities.

Manchester said while “there’s better than a 50/50 chance” that his city — or any of the other 22 — will be selected for the program, “there’s absolutely no way to tell” what could tilt those odds further in Lewisburg’s favor.

The Home Rule Board has scheduled five regional meetings to hear presentations from all 23 applicants. After the final meeting is held Sept. 8 in Martinsburg, the board will reconvene to make a final decision on the 16 cities that will be accepted into the pilot program, joining phase I participants Bridgeport, Charleston, Huntington and Wheeling.

Lewisburg is scheduled to be heard around mid-morning on Monday at the regional meeting being held at Beckley City Hall. Other home rule applicants on the board’s agenda that day are Bluefield, Princeton and Oak Hill.

During a public hearing held in Lewisburg a couple of months ago to gather input on the city’s application, Manchester said the goal of the home rule program is to “increase the efficiency of government.”

City Council member Joseph Lutz added, “Home rule itself is about small municipalities having more leeway in making rules for their local area.”

Lewisburg’s application outlines six issues city officials want to address through the increased flexibility afforded by the home rule pilot program. Four of those issues are administrative, and two deal with hotel occupancy taxes.

“None of the six is earth-shattering, but the compilation of them shows our intent to manage our affairs more efficiently,” Manchester said.

Those six issues are:

1 - Authorizing use of proceeds from hotel occupancy tax to fund public libraries.

Citing State Code’s very restrictive language regarding the expenditure of occupancy tax funds, the application notes, “Currently, (money) collected from hotel occupancy tax cannot be expended for municipal public libraries.”

According to the application, Lewisburg officials want to be able to supplement the city’s present level of support for the public library within the corporate boundaries by tapping hotel/motel tax revenues — which are projected to increase in the fiscal year just begun — rather than placing additional pressure on the comparatively “flat” general fund budget.

The hotel/motel tax allocation for the library anticipated for the current fiscal year would be $16,100, bringing the city’s direct financial support for the institution up to $57,700.

2 - Permitting building and zoning administrators and/or city law enforcement officers to issue “on the spot” citations for external sanitation violations.

Under this proposal, city authorities would be able to issue citations for such violations as trash, overgrown weeds, junked motor vehicles and broken windows without first seeking approval from municipal court.

3 - Eliminating one Saturday early voting day prior to a municipal election.

Current state law requires early voting to begin 14 days prior to a municipal election and to include the two Saturdays preceding the election. Lewisburg officials want to eliminate voting on the first of those two Saturdays, citing a cost savings for the city of around $250 per election.

4 - Authorizing the city to collect a 6 percent hotel occupancy tax on persons who occupy a hotel room for 30 or more consecutive days.

State Code currently exempts those staying in a lodging establishment for 30 or more consecutive days from paying the occupancy tax.

The application points to Lewisburg’s tourism-based economy in appealing for authorization to collect the tax regardless of the length of the guest’s stay.

“The construction industry and the oil and gas industry often secure long-term accommodations for their workers in local motels,” the application asserts. “Though we are not now in an area that is slated for significant Marcellus shale gas development, our area does sit on top of significant Utica shale gas deposits.”

Additionally citing the likelihood that at least some of the construction workers employed on long-term build outs at The Greenbrier resort and the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine will seek lodging in Lewisburg, the application details the economic hardship the resulting loss of bed tax revenue would impose on the city.

Lewisburg currently takes in annual bed tax revenue of nearly $600,000, an amount that is split equally between the city and the Greenbrier County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

5 - Allowing the city to reduce the number of notifications that are required to be made to customers prior to terminating utility service and to modify the required methods in which notification to the customer regarding termination is made.

The application asks that Lewisburg be permitted in most cases to make only one notification by personal contact prior to disconnecting a customer’s water service rather than making two attempts at personal notification, as the law currently requires.

The application maintains that the city would save “a significant amount of money and man-hours over the course of each year” if this change were allowed.

6 - Authorizing the sale of municipal surplus property without being required to advertise that property as a Class II legal ad or to sell it at a public auction using an auctioneer.

The city asks that it be allowed to advertise and sell surplus property on a free online auction site rather than following the current process through local means. According to the application, this change will save the city advertising costs of $150-$200 per auction and the cost of hiring an auctioneer, estimated at between 10 and 20 percent of the value of the items sold.

Coming Saturday: A look at Oak Hill’s home rule proposal.

— E-mail: talvey@register-herald.com

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