Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series looking at West Virginia annexation laws. Today’s installment deals with a county’s perspective. Monday, The Register-Herald will present a city’s perspective, along with a look at how the state Legislature may examine the issue in 2006.

Were it not for offending the ACLU’s pious sensibilities regarding the separation of church and state, Fayette County Commission president Matthew Wender would respond loudly with one word regarding Vivian Parsons’ recent call for changes to the state’s annexation law — “Amen!”

Parsons, who heads the County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia, is pushing for changes to the law, saying counties have little say in whether annexations are in the public’s best interest. Wender could not agree more. For him, the issue is coming to the forefront not a moment too soon.

“The law certainly needs some clean-up,” Wender said. “If we unwound this whole issue a bit, there are some underlying, driving concerns that we need to address.”

Rather than antagonism and opposition, the commission president exudes nothing but sympathy and compassion toward municipalities on the subject. He said he understands their need for revenue. If any fingers of blame are warranted, Wender believes they should be pointed in the direction of Charleston.

“In large part, this goes back to the costs municipalities face in running their governments,” he observed.

“We’re not addressing the core issues. I’m very sympathetic to the cost of running a municipal government. Trying to raise revenues forces this competition with the county and with other municipalities. Annexation is simply one of those issues where this plays out.”

Wender and fellow Commissioner Kenneth Eskew have seen the issue up close and personally with an annexation battle last summer involving a developer’s wish to have an area near the New River Gorge annexed into the town of Fayetteville.

When the town presented its annexation petition to the county commission — a request later found to be flawed by a circuit judge — Wender and company were helpless to do anything but approve the request.

“When the Legislature passed this legislation (allowing annexation without election), I don’t think they gave thought to the size of this parcel of property — they envisioned a home or lot,” Wender said.

“Quite the extreme happened in this case. This was a good example of a piece of property that has a countywide interest. I think the Legislature should go back and address what size a parcel or lot can be to qualify for annexation without an election.”

Wender asserts that only the county commission is the proper arena for settling any issues that have an interest beyond the bounds of a municipality. As the law is currently written, however, the commission has no latitude in such matters.

“We have no input at all. We’re mandated to proceed with that certification. It wouldn’t make a difference if we had a courthouse full of protesters.”

Giving municipalities more autonomy in their financing options and the entire concept of metro government cross Wender’s mind as over-arching issues for which annexation is merely a symptom.

“There has to be more cooperation and combination between municipalities and counties. State Sen. Brooks McCabe and others have championed the metro government issue for some time. I’m bothered that the idea isn’t receiving more widespread acceptance.”

Wender realizes the pitfalls in metro government’s road to acceptance, and that is the loss of jobs and territorial control. He also sees a need for taxpayers to receive a fair return for what they pay in property taxes and municipal fees.

“All but three municipalities in Fayette County have police protection. Our sheriff’s department and fire departments reflect a lot of cooperation around this area of sharing services. Taxpayers are footing the bill for services. Must they foot the bill for both county and municipal levels?”

Eskew echoes many of Wender’s concerns, putting special emphasis on the need for a minor boundary adjustment definition and a density requirement.

“The biggest glitch that’s happened, in my view, is when legislators deleted the previous density requirement of 500 freeholders per square mile. That’s the biggest heartburn with which county commissioners have had a problem.”

While acknowledging a municipality’s need for revenue, Eskew questions some of the methods used to increase a town’s coffers. The thought of liberalizing the state’s annexation law merely increases his worries.

“At one point, there was a tendency to strip-annex U.S. 19 in the location of Lowe’s and Wal-Mart. That would allow a municipality to collect business and occupation taxes. It also gives them jurisdictional power to enhance the town’s treasury with traffic violations, etc.”

Wender added that such power can have serious consequences. “Abuses can happen when municipalities might annex highway mileage and see it as a chance to generate revenues by way of writing tickets.”

Eskew and Wender agree that, when a city is successful in annexing a particular area, an assurance should exist that those in the affected area will be able to avail themselves of municipal services. No such guarantee presently exists, they said.

“Why are we forcing municipalities to go to those measures to raise revenues?” Wender asked. “Citizens should at least be able to expect police, sewer, water and garbage disposal when they’re annexed.”

While neither commissioner endorsed the idea of requiring unanimous approval before those in an affected area are annexed — and both gave a cool response to the idea of having veto power — they both supported the idea of perhaps mandating that a super majority of those affected approve of annexation.

“I wouldn’t have any problem with that at all,” Wender said. “There are bond issues that have to be approved by super majorities. I think there can be a case made for getting more than simply 50 percent.”

For both men, the goal is simple — giving county residents a fair venue for having their concerns aired.

“We want the Legislature to tweak or tighten the law to remove the blank check for a municipality to do whatever it wants to do,” Eskew said.

“I understand the municipalities and their need for revenue, but their gain is the county’s loss. Somewhere in between, there needs to be a process in place that’s fair to all parties. The bottom line is that the people need to have a voice.”

— E-mail:

mhill@register-herald.com

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