Home rule program growing in West Virginia

WEIRTON – Five years after launching the municipal home rule pilot program in four West Virginia communities, the state is ready to expand it.

The new legislation, passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, allows 14 cities across the state to adopt home rule in addition to the four original test sites – Wheeling, Bridgeport, Charleston and Huntington – where it’s been in place since 2007.

Those 14 new openings, however, may not be nearly enough to accommodate the communities interested in the program. Initial reports suggest interest is widespread, though how many will actually follow through and apply remains to be seen.

“This round is going to be very different than the first round,” said Weirton native Chris Fletcher, a member of the home rule board since its inception. He points out that the last time around, there were four openings and only four communities that applied.

“Time will tell … just how many communities expressing interest locally will actually move in that direction (now).”

Fletcher, though, sees it as a no-brainer: the four communities that piloted home rule were able to address needs specific to their community and achieve measurable results.

Wheeling, for instance, needed a vehicle to encourage landlords to fill properties rather than allow them to sit vacant and fall into disrepair. Through home rule, the city was able to assess a fee against owners of vacant buildings – the longer the building remains unused, the higher the fee.

An audit done by the West Virginia Legislative Auditor in November found that since the ordinance was implemented in Wheeling, 155 vacant properties had been registered, 19 others were demolished and $15,800 in fees had been generated, though more than twice that amount remains outstanding.

“Home rule enabled us to step up and say we’ll no longer allow (dilapidated structures) in our community, we’ll no longer allow the few to dictate policy to the majority,” said Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie. “Home rule forces that minority to clean up their property, tear it down or sell it to someone who cares. Home rule doesn’t force landowners to sell, so it’s not unconstitutional; we’re just saying this is the minimum standard in our community.”

Home rule also allowed Wheeling to consolidate its permitting process. Before home rule, the city had 77 different business license classifications – now there are just three. Likewise, rather than three different building permits the city now has only one. Council also was able to eliminate the fire service fee on personal property.

Both of those ideas have since been implemented statewide.

“I think home rule’s worked extremely well,” McKenzie said. “What home rule really does is it moves the ability to govern from the Legislature to the local community, which ultimately empowers local communities to do what’s best for them.”

McKenzie said when you get right down to it, those who know a community best are the people who live there rather than lawmakers in Charleston.

“That’s a key point,” Fletcher agreed. “One size does not fit all. That’s been one of the biggest challenges across the state for decades – all our economies, all our markets, all our challenges and opportunities are very different. There are very different and challenging (issues) within each community, and the purpose of home rule is to allow flexibility, to allow communities to identify the challenges they face and develop solutions.

Delegate Ron Jones, D-Hancock, says communities throughout the Northern Panhandle are seriously interested in joining the program, including Weirton.

“It’s a good opportunity,” said Jones, who also serves as Weirton’s Ward 1 councilman. “I think it would be great for us. We can adapt it to fit our needs.”

Weirton, in fact, had toyed with the idea of applying for the original pilot project in 2008, but backed away after opposition surfaced within the business community.

“It was portrayed as council trying to put in higher taxes,” Jones recalled. “It’s my belief, if the presentation had been clearer, the business community would have embraced it. It was just poorly presented to the business community.”

Former state Sen. Ed Bowman, who authored the original legislation, said he thinks home rule is “a good thing for the community, a lot of positive benefits come out of it.”

“I’ve always been a real believer in home rule,” he said. “Local lawmakers are so much more accessible to people in the community than state legislators are. Nobody in Weirton is more than 10 minutes from the city building. If council were to do something tomorrow that the people of the community feel strongly about, all they’d have to do is go down to the city building and tell them. It’s not very difficult.”

It’s no slam dunk, either. Every home rule change must pass the required readings before council, and the West Virginia Home Rule Board also reviews every proposal. Bowman said that means there’s plenty of opportunity for citizen input.

“Every city is different, just like one glove doesn’t fit all sizes,” Bowman said. Weirton, for instance, “is the only city in the country bordered by two other states. When I was in the Senate and we would discuss issues like the tobacco tax, I’d point out that all my people had to do was drive to Paris or Steubenville to buy those things. They had to understand the decisions they make affect people in the middle of West Virginia and people in the Charleston area much differently than they affect us up here.”

The legislative auditor’s report, done prior to past Legislative session, “… gave it very, very high marks,” Bowman said, pointing out “that doesn’t happen too often.”

“Home rule did exactly what it was intended to do, and that was to try and provide some flexibility for municipal governments across the state to develop programs and projects that otherwise they would not be able to do,” Fletcher added. “I think Charleston, Huntington, Wheeling and Bridgeport have made some great strides in addressing some of the challenges they’ve been experiencing; obviously, the legislators agreed and extended the program, they broadened the opportunity for participation to include more municipalities.”

For most communities, the discussions are still in the preliminary stages.

“Nobody really knows enough about it to make a decision (yet),” Follansbee City Manager John DiSteffano said. “There were some good things that came out of (the pilot program). There were some things the Legislature said other cities could adopt, which is a good thing – unsightly, dilapidated properties, for instance. And Wheeling and Huntington did some things with the sales taxes and B&O taxes. They’re both going for some form of sales tax. I’m not sure how that would affect a city like us, we rely more on the B&O than a sales tax. We’d like to look at it, there are probably some things that might make sense but from an administrative standpoint, it would be more on our plate.”

McKenzie, meanwhile, said communities uncertain about what home rule can do for them need only look to what the four pilot cities have been able to accomplish with it. In Wheeling’s case, he said home rule gave the city the tools it needed to deal with a problem that had been dogging it for decades and townspeople responded.

“We’ve had nothing but positives and support from the community. They’re seeing the program fixing and cleaning up their neighborhoods,” he said. “The only people opposed to it are the people who aren’t obeying the law and don’t care about the community. The general population gets it. If anybody thinks it’s political, they don’t understand it – if anything, it’s the opposite. If you’re a responsible landowner you’re complying with the rules already. The only people who would object are people who don’t want to comply or simply aren’t complying.”

Much of the time, he points out, the owners of dilapidated properties are people who’ve moved away from the community and allowed their properties to fall into disrepair. Home rule forced those individuals to bring those properties to standard, sell them or tear them down.

“It’s a black-and-white issue, it’s very clear-cut,” he said. “You can enforce the rules and make your community a better community, or you can continue doing it the old way and allowing communities to deteriorate.”

He also said home rule’s greatest strength may well be that it allows local government “to reduce or eliminate tax burden on citizens, as well as reduce bureaucracy.”

“That enables development and empowers communities,” he said. “It’s not been a home run for us. I’d have to say it’s been a double home run in enabling us to do things.”

(Harris can be contacted at lharris@heraldstaronline.com)