What has Home Rule Done For Your City?

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- For the last four years the West Virginia cities of Huntington, Charleston, Wheeling and Bridgeport have been operating under "Home Rule."

The pilot program was enacted to allow cities to have more control over decisions, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach to government, coming from lawmakers in Charleston.

"People here don't want Washington to dictate everything to us why would we want Charleston to dictate how we manage our city," Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said.

WSAZ.com spoke with leaders in all four Home Rule cities. When asked what the pros and cons were all four said they didn't have any cons and all four would like to see the pilot program extended for another five years.

The proposal before lawmakers would also add five more cities to the rolls.

However Cabell County Delegate, Republican Kellie Sobonya explained she doesn't think the debate should even come to the forefront as the constitutionality of the issue still hangs in the balance.

"I will say that we have a centralized form of government in the state I think we need to give flex to our muni to effect their own destiny," Delegate Sobonya said.

"We know it worked because of the legislative audit," Lisa Dooley, executive director of the West Virginia Municipal League explained.v "This has allowed those three cities to test their ideas, to think outside the box to do things they know work on the front lines they are the ones that know best they are the ones that deal with it everyday."

Some of those ideas have been taken back to Charleston and been passed so all municipalities have the power to use them.

One includes a streamlined approach for business licensing. Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie explained over the phone that at one time his city had 77 unique licenses for businesses. Home Rule allowed city leaders to streamline that to three. Bridgeport's city manager explained something similar happened in Bridgeport.

Also in Wheeling a vacant building registration that allows the city to take action for unsafe, deteriorated or dilapidated buildings. Through fines and other measures the city has seen a major clean-up.

"The goal is to not collect a dollar, but get a proactive owner," Mayor McKenzie said.

"There was a long drawn out process that the cities had to go through," Dooley said. "The folks who were being penalized were the people who were taking care of the properties."

That practice also was put into action statewide and now the Kanwaha County city of Dunbar is enacting a similar process.

In the city of Charleston, city manager, David Molgaard, helped paved the way for the urban deer hunt. It also allowed the canopy on the amphitheater at Haddad Riverfront park to go up quickly. It allowed the city of Charleston to work under it's own rules as opposed to state rules.

Delegate Sobonya has other concerns about the program, beyond it's constitutionality.

"I just really have a problem though with certain cherry picked municipalities that an un-elected board can say okay you are going to be a winner over here we are going to expand your powers and not afford that to other municipalities," she said.

Another concern is the issue of taxes. At the center of much debate was a occupational fee put into place in Huntington. The 1% fee is something that was challenged in court. Mayor Williams said even if it is ruled constitutional it would not be enacted.

In Charleston the proposal of the .5% sales tax to fund renovations of the Charleston Civic Center is something that is able to be on the table because of Home Rule.

Huntington also implemented a 1% sales tax.

"Their implementation of the sales tax was a reduction on the business tax burden," Dooley said. "They are actually putting money back into the businesses bottom line because of the gross revenue, you can lose money and still pay the business and occupation tax."

The current Home Rule pilot program expires on July 1st, 2013.

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