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City to seek ability to issue 'on-the-spot' citations under the home rule program

Apr. 12, 2013 @ 12:05 AM

HUNTINGTON -- With the West Virginia Legislature still debating whether to extend a home rule pilot program for cities, Huntington officials say they will pursue a new law under the program to eliminate blight.

Mayor Steve Williams also announced Thursday that, effective July 1, all code enforcement operations will shift from the Department of Inspections and Compliance to the Huntington Police Department.

The city will seek the ability under the pilot program to issue "on-the-spot" citations as part of its multi-pronged effort to clean up neighborhoods, said Brandi Jacobs-Jones, director of administration and finance. Huntington already is in the middle of a comprehensive spring cleanup campaign, and City Council adopted an ordinance last month targeting household furniture on front porches and in yards.

Huntington was one of the four original cities accepted into the home rule pilot program in 2008. City officials have used it to tear down dilapidated housing more quickly, collect delinquent fees and implement a 1 percent sales tax along with reductions in the business and occupation tax. The tax changes have provided the city with more revenue and increased the potential for business growth, Williams said.

Charleston, another home rule participant, gained the authority to issue on-the-spot citations for external sanitation violations and common nuisances in 2009. Charleston inspectors have reported faster compliance, and only a few of the dozens of citations have been appealed to municipal court.

Huntington now must give property owners a 10-day warning to clean up their messes before a citation can be issued.

"This will allow code enforcement to function in the same capacity as parking enforcement officers," Jacobs-Jones said. "You either pay a ticket or you go before the municipal court judge."

Jacobs-Jones said the proposed citation ordinance and the requested changes to Huntington's home rule plan would be posted on the city's website (www.cityofhuntington.com) beginning Friday. The home rule changes also include eliminating all language in Huntington's plan regarding a 1 percent occupation tax. Huntington City Council adopted the tax in 2011, but it was challenged in Kanawha Circuit Court before it could take effect. Although the judge has not issued a ruling, City Council voted to repeal the occupation tax ordinance last month.

A public hearing on the proposed changes is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. May 13 in council chambers at City Hall, the same day that the citation ordinance will go before the council on first reading. Presuming the council approves the ordinance at its May 27 meeting, city officials then will request to present its proposals to the Municipal Home Rule Board in early June, Jacobs-Jones said.

Williams said he is optimistic the House of Delegates and state Senate will reach a compromise on the home rule bill before the legislative session ends at midnight Saturday. The House and Senate were at odds Thursday on a controversial gun amendment and the number of additional cities that will be allowed to participate in the pilot program if it continues. The current version extends the pilot program to July 1, 2019, and allows an unlimited number of cities to apply to join.

If the home rule bill dies, the pilot program will sunset July 1. However, Williams said there are legal opinions that the ordinances that Huntington and the three other home rule cities have adopted under the pilot program would remain in effect.

The mayor said he decided to put the Police Department in charge of code enforcement because "we've found that the concentration of dilapidated housing is also where there is a concentration of crime. We can't operate in silos in city government anymore."

The city now has only one code enforcement officer, but it will hire one more when the fiscal year begins July 1 to coincide with a zero-tolerance policy on weeds, junked vehicles, trash and other nuisance ordinances. The Police Department has applied for a federal grant to hire a third code enforcement officer. Williams said he also plans to use police officers and firefighters in the enforcement blitz.

Follow H-D reporter Bryan Chambers on Facebook or Twitter @BryanChambersHD.

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