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Committee expands home rule to all cities

Apr. 02, 2013 @ 10:56 PM

CHARLESTON — A pilot program that has given a select few cities in West Virginia, including Huntington, broader authority to govern themselves could be made available to all cities in the state.

The House of Delegates’ Government Organization Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to advance Senate Bill 435 to the full chamber for its consideration. The proposal extends the Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program until July 1, 2019, and allows the program’s existing cities — Huntington, Charleston, Wheeling and Bridgeport — to remain in the program while allowing the other 228 cities to join if a state panel approves their applications. The previous version of the bill only allowed up to 10 more cities to join.

Huntington officials have praised the pilot program since it became law in 2007, saying it has streamlined administrative functions, strengthened fee collections and aided in the demolition of dilapidated structures. Huntington also has used the pilot program to modify its tax structure. In January 2012, the city implemented a 1 percent sales tax and eliminated or cut in half the business and occupation tax for certain businesses.

Under the Senate bill, home rule cities have the ability to adopt a 1 percent sales tax if they reduce or eliminate business and occupation taxes. All other changes to taxation are prohibited. The committee added a provision in the bill that if a city later raises business and occupation tax rates, it must eliminate its sales tax.

The bill also prohibits home rule cities from altering laws related to annexation, pensions, criminal statutes, marriage, divorce and the sale and purchase of firearms, among other things.

Allowing all cities to participate in the pilot program will generate more innovative ideas on self-governance and efficiency, said Lisa Dooley, executive director of the West Virginia Municipal League.

“It won’t be restricted to three or four large cities that may or may not have the same problems as the smaller cities,” she said. “Hopefully, we will see more creative solutions in the pilot program that can be adopted statewide.”

That already has occurred with the existing home rule cities. For example, Huntington used the pilot program to hold property owners responsible for tearing down fire-damaged structures. The Legislature adopted the law a year later. Dooley also noted Wheeling’s efforts to streamline the business licensing process.

“Wheeling used this program to take the number of its business licenses from 77 down to three,” she said. “That’s a business-friendly move and it helped us show that we weren’t interested in making it hard on businesses or citizens.”

Dooley estimated an additional 15 to 20 cities will apply for the home rule program if the legislation passes. Most small cities won’t apply because they don’t have the staff needed to submit an application, Dooley said. Other cities are not current with their state licensing or auditing fees, a requirement in the bill, she said.

Delegate Jim Morgan, D-Cabell and chairman of the House Government Organization Committee, said the bill is a sign the Legislature is willing to let cities have more control over how they operate.

“We spent $750,000 on an education audit to find out that the level that should make more of the decisions is the local level where the teaching is being done,” Morgan said. “Why shouldn’t we treat cities the same way?”

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams attended the committee meeting and is supportive of the bill in its current form. He said he particularly supports the provision which requires a city to eliminate its sales tax if it tries to increase business and occupation taxes.

“We’ve been saying all along the purpose of the sales tax is to get rid of business taxes,” Williams said. “This provision prevents a bait and switch.”

The bill is on track for passage Friday in the House of Delegates. The Senate would have to vote on whether to accept the changes made in the House or send the bill to a conference committee to reach a compromise.

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

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