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W.Va. Senate approves home rule bill

Senate
Mar. 07, 2013 @ 11:43 PM

CHARLESTON -- The state Senate on Thursday approved a bill continuing and expanding a pilot program that has given four West Virginia cities, including Huntington, broader authority to govern themselves.

Senate Bill 435, which was introduced earlier this week, was approved by a unanimous vote and sent to the House of Delegates.

The bill extends the Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program to July 1, 2019, and keeps its four participants -- Huntington, Charleston, Wheeling and Bridgeport -- while allowing as many as 10 more cities with at least 2,000 people to join.

City officials have praised the pilot program, 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 would have the ability to adopt a 1 percent sales tax if they reduced or eliminated business and occupation taxes. All other changes to taxation would be prohibited.

Senate Government Organization Committee Chairman Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, said Huntington's success with the sales tax convinced legislators to let other home rule cities try it. The West Virginia Municipal League and the state Chamber of Commerce also support the provision, he said.

The bill also provides that any municipal occupation tax ordinances are declared null and void. Huntington adopted an occupation tax in 2011, but it was challenged in court before it could take effect. Huntington City Council is scheduled to vote on an ordinance to rescind the occupation tax on Monday, March 11. Rescinding the tax is part of ongoing negotiations between the city and plaintiffs to resolve the lawsuit.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams told City Council members during a work session Thursday that he is pleased with the Senate bill.

"We're not ready to do a victory dance just yet," he said.

Williams praised state senators Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, and Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, for supporting the bill. Williams said he was concerned with the original version of the bill because it would have required the four existing home rule cities to reapply. Jenkins offered an amendment on the Senate floor Thursday that allows the existing cities to remain in the program but requires them to seek approval from the Municipal Home Rule Board when proposing new home rule ordinances. The amendment was unanimously approved.

The House's version of the bill was withdrawn from its Government Organization Committee's agenda Thursday afternoon. Committee Chairman Jim Morgan, D-Cabell, said the House will now focus on the Senate Bill.

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

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