By Lawrence Messina
The West Virginia Legislature should expand government powers for cities across the state, following a five-year experiment that increased such authority for a handful of municipalities, according to a report presented to lawmakers Tuesday.
The legislative audit deems the “home rule” pilot program a success, leading the Performance Evaluation and Research Division to recommend granting broad-based authority to all cities with more than 2,000 residents, Director John Sylvia told a pair of House-Senate oversight committees.
The report said the shift should be done within the limits of the pilot program, finding it allowed the four participating municipalities to reduce bureaucracy, simplify business licensing and shore up finances.
Sylvia said lawmakers could allow the seven-member board that led the pilot program to expire as scheduled in July 2013, while allowing its regulatory structure to continue. The program allowed the participating cities to propose changes to their ordinances as allowed by federal law, the state constitution and state criminal statutes.
“The current restrictions are adequate in allowing all cities to have this authority to generate more ideas, and spur economic development, administrative efficiency and ideas that will benefit citizens,” Sylvia said.
Charleston and Huntington, the state’s most populous cities, took part in the program along with Bridgeport and Wheeling. Of the 25 proposed changes they pitched to the Home Rule Board, 14 were fully enacted and another six were implemented in part. Sylvia also noted that four prompted legal challenges. Those include Huntington’s attempt to swap its $3-a-week user fee for a 1 percent user tax. The resulting lawsuit remains pending.
But eight changes are now available to any city in West Virginia, including five that led to legislation. One such change allows cities to pursue a portion of fire insurance proceeds when a burned-out building must be demolished. That allowed Huntington to save $165,000 in demolition costs while preserving $250,000 in property values and reducing arson-related fires, Sylvia said.
Another new law inspired by the pilot program requires owners of vacant buildings to register these properties with cities that set up the necessary program. Meant to encourage owners to tear down or renovate dilapidated buildings, the program as proposed in Wheeling has seen 19 such structures torn down and 155 registered, the report said.
Charleston has collected more than $202,200 in past-due city fees through one of its proposals, later expanded statewide by the Legislature. The measure allows for the filing of liens against properties for unpaid and delinquent fire, police, or street fees.
The pilot program also allowed Bridgeport to whack its array of 81 business license classes down to one, with a flat $15 fee. Wheeling has streamlined its business licenses from 77 to seven, with most requiring a flat $15 fee.
The joint Committee on Government Organization plans to discuss a bill for the coming 2013 session that would act on the audit’s recommendations. But Sen. Evan Jenkins urged caution during Tuesday’s meeting. The Cabell County Democrat, whose district includes Huntington, said lawmakers should ensure that cities don’t prompt more lawsuits or otherwise go overboard if granted new powers.
“We must at this point in time, address those issues and provide clarity to statute, if possible, so we don’t create the potential of a municipality going beyond wherever that line is drawn,” Jenkins said.
Those attending the meeting included Charleston Mayor Danny Jones and Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie, both supporters of the home rule program. Both are former lawmakers. After the report’s presentation, McKenzie called the pilot program one of the most important changes carried out by the Legislature in the past 20 years. McKenzie said increased home rule would allow cities to reduce both taxes and government red tape while giving economic development efforts a better chance to succeed.