Kessler favors greater expansion of home rule

WHEELING – West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler sees no reason why legislators should stop at accepting four additional cities into a pilot program giving four West Virginia cities broader authority to govern themselves.

Although Kessler expects education reform, prison overcrowding and the state’s budget to top the Legislature’s agenda during the 60-day session that convenes Wednesday, he is confident lawmakers will not only extend but expand home rule before leaving Charleston. The current program, created in 2007 and implemented a year later, will expire June 30 if lawmakers fail to act on it.

Home rule has allowed Wheeling to adopt various measures over the last five years, including charging a fee from owners who let vacant structures sit empty too long; the right to place liens for the collection of delinquent fees; streamlining business licenses from almost 80 to just a few; and granting conditional-use zoning permits.

“I think it’s been very well-received,” said Kessler, D-Marshall, of the pilot program. “We depend on municipalities to provide a wide variety of services, but we hamstring them or hog-tie them when it comes to implementing things,” said Kessler.

Twenty of 25 proposals among the four states have been fully or partially enacted, including all four of Wheeling’s. The strongest opposition has come in Huntington, where three of four proposals face legal challenges.

A legislative audit released in November recommended expansion of the program, pointing out that several of the cities’ proposals – including vacant building registration, lien power, streamlining licenses and expansion of the annual urban deer hunt season – have now been implemented statewide. Last month, a House-Senate subcommittee considered a draft bill for home rule expansion that would extend the program through 2018, continuing it where it exists and allowing four additional municipalities to join.

In addition to Wheeling, Charleston, Huntington and Bridgeport, W.Va., were accepted into the program, originally set up to include five cities. One local city, Weirton, strongly considered applying in 2007 but ultimately decided to bow out, and the four cities that ultimately were accepted were the only ones to apply.