By Lawrence Messina
West Virginia cities aren’t ready to accept more power from state government in the wake of a legislative study that recommends as much, the group that represents them has concluded.
The state Municipal League instead is advising lawmakers to stick with the “home rule” pilot program applauded by last week’s report from the Performance Evaluation and Research Division.
“We wish to see the program expanded and continued,” league Executive Director Lisa Dooley said. “We’re happy with that (recommendation), but there are 232 cities. ... We support using this as a laboratory, for testing these ideas.”
Dooley said the league is asking the Legislature to extend the pilot program another five years and keep its four participants — Charleston, Huntington, Wheeling and Bridgeport — while allowing four more to join. Currently limited to cities, Dooley said towns and villages should be given the chance to take part if they have the resources to apply. That process includes filing a detailed plan with specific proposed changes to ordinances, rules and regulations.
West Virginia has a highly centralized government and limits the taxing authority and other powers of cities, towns and villages. The legislative audit found that the cities that experimented with increased powers during the five-year program successfully tackled blight, simplified business licensing and strengthened their finances. The auditors concluded the program’s approach to home rule should be expanded to all cities statewide with more than 2,000 residents.
Officials from the pilot program cities weighed in during last week’s interim study meetings. Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie reminded a House-Senate subcommittee assigned to the topic that West Virginia’s cities compete with those in border states that have long enjoyed full-fledged powers.
“What we were able to do was lessen the burden, lessen the bureaucracy, lessen the taxes in the city of Wheeling because of home rule,” said McKenzie, a Republican. “We have to have the ability to govern locally to make things better in our community.”
Lawmakers asked the officials about potential critics of home rule. Charleston Mayor Danny Jones cited the cities’ newfound power to require the owners of vacant properties to register them. Registry programs charge owners fees that escalate the longer a building stands empty, to push them to restore or demolish it. The measure is one of five that emerged from the program and can now be adopted by any municipality in the state.
“You might find a landlord or two that doesn’t want to obey the law, or doesn’t want to have his property brought up to the standard of various neighborhoods,” said Jones, a Republican and mayor of the state’s most populous city and its capital. “That would be the only complaint, because the neighbors want the houses fixed.”
The Municipal League supports continuing to exclude annexation from the range of topics that can be pursued within the pilot program.
“Annexation laws are working well and do not have to be invoked for change under home rule,” Dooley told the joint Government Organization subcommittee last week.
But Dooley and city officials are urging lawmakers not to close the door on allowing tax changes. Huntington faces a legal challenge over its attempt to replace a $3-a-week user fee with a 1 percent occupation tax under home rule. That has spurred concerns that revenue-strapped cities would seek to hike taxes on residents and employers.
Huntington Mayor-elect Steve Williams considers the occupation tax a dead issue. The Democrat told lawmakers that he plans to work with the city council to rescind it and resolve the lawsuit. He also cited how Huntington cut an existing tax on service and retail businesses while eliminating it for manufacturers, all through the pilot program.
“There’s another side to that tax reform package that did not get much attention, but that side has been tremendously successful,” said Williams, who like McKenzie and Jones is also a former legislator. “Keep taxation as part of this. Don’t wall it off from us.”
Dooley echoed Williams’ point. She also said that while the tax issue may not be behind the defeat of Mayor Kim Wolfe in November, the election result underscores another reality about home rule.
“If the citizens of a municipality disagree with the decisions being made, they’ll vote them out. We know that, and that is home rule,” Dooley said. “Really, it’s letting the citizens determine their destiny.”