By Lawrence Messina
West Virginia would continue to experiment with shifting more government power to the local level by inviting 10 more cities or towns to take part through a measure unanimously endorsed Thursday by the state Senate.
The Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program would continue for another five years under the bill passed to the House. While opening it up so towns with 2,000 or fewer people could also apply, the legislation would greatly limit tax changes while putting several other topics off-limits.
Fairmont has expressed interest in participating.
Government in West Virginia is highly centralized. Charleston, Huntington, Wheeling and Bridgeport took part in the initial five-year pilot. Overseen by a state board, home rule allowed those cities to reduce taxes, streamline regulations, collect delinquent fees and target abandoned and blighted buildings. A legislative audit declared the pilot a success last year.
But Huntington also used home rule to replace the city’s user fee with a 1 percent occupation tax. A lawsuit blocked that move, and Thursday’s bill would void any occupation taxes enacted during the initial pilot. With a new mayor opposed to the tax, Huntington City Council is scheduled to vote Monday on repealing it.
Executive Director Lisa Dooley of the West Virginia Municipal League, said Huntington provided a learning experience for the pilot program but also revealed its built-in safeguards and ultimate worth.
“We’re not used to home rule, and that’s what happened in Huntington,” Dooley said Thursday. “The home rule philosophy works, and that’s what we’re trying to convince the Legislature of.”
Thursday’s bill would preserve the other changes made by the four cities, and allow them to continue to participate. But the renewed pilot program would forbid any new taxes except a 1 percent sales tax if that city or town reduces or erases its business and occupation tax. Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, a vocal supporter of home rule, recently proposed such a measure.
The pilot’s power-shifting would also not extend to several other areas: annexation, pensions, criminal justice, projects funded through tax revenue sharing, environmental laws, and coal mining or other natural resource extraction. No proposed changes could apply to people or property outside municipal boundaries.
The Municipal League supports expanding the pilot, as opposed to allowing home rule statewide as last year’s audit recommended. Dooley said her group would seek such minor changes as ensuring that the ban on environmental laws would not interfere with efforts to demolish blighted buildings that may contain asbestos, for instance.
“This bill is the vehicle that we’ll be working on to reach a final bill,” Dooley said.
Each city or town wanting to apply must first hold a public hearing to explain its plans, after providing 30-days’ advance notice. That prior notice must include making a written copy available. The municipalities selected by the board must then repeat that public hearing process to detail any proposed ordinances, rules or other changes. It must then provide all comments received during that public hearing to the oversight board.