Lawmakers urged to back home rule
HUNTINGTON -- Huntington and other West Virginia cities should be allowed to continue experimenting with broad governmental powers under a home rule pilot program, Mayor Steve Williams says.
The newly-elected mayor met Monday with a group of state lawmakers who represent Cabell and Wayne counties to discuss the issues that will be on the city's radar during the West Virginia Legislature's 60-day session, which begins Wednesday, Feb. 13.
Williams made it clear to the group that extending the home rule pilot program another five years and letting Huntington keep the measures it has adopted under the program will be his top priority.
"We think it's prudent, conservative government to let us make our own decisions," he said.
Cabell County delegates Carol Miller, Dale Stephens and Jim Morgan attended the meeting along with Cabell County Sen. Evan Jenkins and Wayne County Sen. Bob Plymale.
City officials have praised the home rule pilot program, saying it has streamlined administrative functions, strengthened fee collections and aided in the demolition of dilapidated structures. The pilot program began in 2008 and is currently scheduled to end July 1 unless the Legislature approves an extension.
A House-Senate subcommittee has studied the program for the past several months. Some of the members have considered a bill that would extend the program through 2018 and let four more cities join. In addition to Huntington, Charleston, Wheeling and Bridgeport are already part of the program.
Lawmakers are apprehensive about letting cities continue to experiment with taxation, Morgan said. Those comments were echoed by House Speaker Richard Thompson last week during the Associated Press Legislative Lookahead.
"I don't think members will favor just letting the municipalities set the tax structure that they want. I think we've heard a lot of issues, a lot of problems with that," Thompson said. "Now as far as the other aspects of the home rule program, I think it's been a big success around the state and I think it's something I would certainly support continuing."
Huntington was the only city in the pilot program to alter its tax structure. It implemented a 1 percent sales tax in January 2012 and repealed the business and occupation tax for manufacturers and reduced it by half for retail- and service-based companies. Williams says those changes took effect with little opposition and have made the city more attractive to businesses. It also has resulted in a net revenue gain of roughly $1.5 million annually for the city, he said.
But Huntington also tried to adopt a 1 percent occupation tax that was widely opposed and has been mired in litigation for the past 18 months. Williams said even if the city wins the court case and gains the ability to adopt the occupation tax, it will never take effect under his watch.
"The thousand-pound gorilla in the room is the occupation tax, but I assure you that tax will never be implemented," Williams said. "We were going to rescind it, but the plaintiffs came back and wanted us to pay for their attorney fees. We're just not going to do that."
As long as Huntington is allowed to keep its sales tax, Williams said he does not oppose legislation that prohibits home rule cities from changing their tax structure. Morgan said he will sponsor a bill that would allow home rule cities to make tax modifications if it's approved by 55 percent of the voters in a public referendum.
Also during the meeting, Jenkins said he will sponsor legislation that aims to strengthen penalties against graffiti crimes. The Legislature adopted a bill addressing the issue last year, but Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was forced to veto it because of a technicality. The measure was widely supported by the Cabell County delegation because of ongoing problems with graffiti in downtown Huntington.
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