CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Some West Virginia cities have reduced blight, enhanced their downtown sections and removed bureaucratic hurdles for businesses thanks to an experiment that shifted powers from the state’s highly centralized government, lawmakers were told Monday.
The state Municipal League and the mayors of Wheeling and Charleston, the state’s capital city and its most populous, are among those who praised the home-rule pilot program during a House-Senate subcommittee meeting.
“This has been a very progressive and a very successful pilot program,” said Lisa Dooley, the Municipal League’s executive director. “You haven’t read about cities running rampant, or folks moving outside the cities. Businesses aren’t leaving.”
But the program has hit some rough patches. A pending legal challenge has blocked an attempt by another participating city, Huntington, to swap its $3-a-week user fee for a 1 percent user tax. That city did restructure its business and occupation tax while adopting a 1 percent sales tax on Jan. 1 through the home rule program. The fourth city taking part, Bridgeport, unsuccessfully sought to extend its fire service fee to parts of its coverage area outside of the city limits, Dooley said.
The five-year program approved by the Legislature in 2007 has temporarily allowed a narrow range of expanded powers. The four cities applied to a special state board, explaining what they would do with the increased authority. Each city’s plan required the board’s approval, and the cities could also seek to amend those plans.
The program expires in July 2013, with an audit of its performance expected for legislative review by the end of the year.
“We’d like to see the scope expanded, and that would allow other cities the opportunity not to just be given carte blanche authority, but to apply to the board with innovative problem-solving solutions that work on the home front,” Dooley said. “They’re able to tell you what the cost-efficient ways to provide services are, but they’re hamstrung at times because of rules and regulations.”
In Wheeling, nearly 50 dilapidated buildings have been torn down or restored to use because of home rule, through a program that requires owners to register vacant structures, City Manager Robert Herron told the subcommittee. Around 110 buildings remain on the list, with the city identifying another possible 293, as officials review structures street-by-street.
The registry charges owners fees that escalate the longer a building stands empty, to push them to act. Mayor Andy McKenzie noted that these structures also don’t typically yield property taxes, a key funding source for local government and county schools.
“It really became a huge burden, not only on the people who live there but also the business community,” said McKenzie, who was a state senator when the legislation passed. “You may have a wonderful home or a vibrant business and next door to you, you may have a burned-out building or a building that just simply was let go 10, 20, 30 years ago.”
Before home rule, Wheeling also had 77 business-related licenses, McKenzie said. The expanded powers allowed it to reduce them to three.
“If you’re a small business, or any business, frankly, in the city of Wheeling, we eliminated all the bureaucracy, basically,” McKenzie told lawmakers. “If you’re a general business, it’s a $15 license.”
Charleston Mayor Danny Jones credited home rule for allowing the city to build Haddad Riverfront Park without having to go through the state. The program has also allowed the city to crack down on unsanitary or nuisance properties, and sign an agreement with neighboring South Charleston to share patrol duties on the Corridor G highway that crosses their borders, Jones said.
“There’s always been a feeling among some folks that if the Legislature allows the cities to have even a small modicum of home rule, that the cities would run wild,” said Jones, like McKenzie a Republican. “I think that what the last five years has proved is, that’s not true.”