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Editorial: Renewing home rule program with limits makes sense

Dec. 01, 2012 @ 10:56 PM

West Virginia's home-rule pilot program that began in 2007 will be up for review by the legislature next year, and this week legislative auditors concluded the project has been helpful to cities and the state.

Mountain State cities have long complained that state code does not give them much flexibility on raising revenue and handling urban issues, and the pilot program gave four cities -- Huntington, Charleston, Wheeling and Bridegport -- a chance to try some changes on their own.

The auditors reported that the four cities developed almost two dozen proposals over the past five years, with many at least partially implemented by city ordinances and eight enacted statewide. That certainly indicates that some important city issues were not being addressed.

For example, several initiatives were passed to deal with dilapidated and abandoned housing, a problem that cities across the state have been struggling with for more than a decade. But most legislators in West Virginia represent rural areas (only 18 percent of West Virginia's 1.8 million people live in cities with more than 10,000 population). So, the problem had received little consideration in Charleston.

Home rule helped develop some good strategies on that front that will benefit cities and small towns, too.

However, questions about taxing authority prompted some of the most vocal opposition to the program. Huntington used home rule to adopt an ordinance that authorized a 1 percent occupation tax and the repeal of its $3-a-week user fee, not only prompting an uproar from many residents but also a legal challenge that still has the matter tied up in court.

On the other hand, Huntington's move to add a local 1 percent sales tax, using the revenues to reduce taxes on businesses in the city, has been fairly well received and successful.

The legislative auditors have recommended opening the home rule program to almost all of the state's cities and towns. But it is unlikely that we will see legislative support for such a broad expansion.

Cabell County Delegate Jim Morgan, who is chairman of the House Government Organization Committee, said this week he would expect a proposal to allow the current participants to continue with the pilot program and allow four or five more cities to take part. He also noted that there could be some restrictions added on taxation changes.

That seems to be a reasonable plan. On the whole, the home-rule program has provided cities with an opportunity to address some important problems, but tax changes need a clearer and more rigorous review process to help avoid a repeat of the Huntington court case.

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