House committee guts city user fees from state law with amendment

Photo Courtesy/WV Legislative Photography TIME TO VOTE — Delegates Shawn Fluharty and Erikka Storch speak shortly before Wednesday’s vote on HB 2256.

CHARLESTON — An amendment to a bill meant to exempt state workers from city user fees would now repeal all user fees, potentially putting cities in a cash crunch.

The House Political Subdivision Committee approved an amendment Wednesday to House Bill 2256 — prohibiting cities from imposing user fees on employees of West Virginia government agencies — that would exempt non-residents of cities with user fees from paying those user fees. The amendment was adopted in a 14-8 vote.

The amendment — offered by Del. Geoff Foster, R-Putnam – would exempt anyone employed within a municipality from having a city user fee deducted from their pay based solely on their employment within a city.

“User fees would still be viable, it just would not be based upon the employment,” Foster said.

City user fees are often used to fund law enforcement, fire departments, and other city services, such as paving, street cleaning, trash collection, parking enforcement. Foster said those services were available before cities started implementing user fees nearly a decade ago, accusing cities of wasting user fee dollars.

“The police existed, the fire departments existed, all of these existed before this fee did,” Foster said. “By allowing this fee and this fee being charged, it’s not supporting those. What it’s supporting is stuff on top of that. That’s just unnecessary things that our cities are doing. If your city has a street sweeper, it’s probably because of this fee.”

Foster called city user fees “taxation without representation” and said that it makes no sense for people to keep paying user fees if they’re working from home due to COVID-19 and not driving into cities with user fees.

“I couldn’t offer you a more worker-friendly amendment,” Foster said. “You’ve got people that are working that have not even been in the city of Charleston since COVID started, because they’re working remotely for safety reasons. And you’re going to tell them you have to keep paying the user fee … That makes no sense whatsoever.”

According to the West Virginia Municipal League, Fairmont, Charleston, Huntington, Romney, Parkersburg, Wheeling, Montgomery, Morgantown, Weirton, and Chester have municipal user fees ranging from $2 to $5. Under the previous version of HB 2256, the cities with user fees could stand to lose more than $3.2 million in lost revenue. With the amendment, cities stand to lose millions more and could result in tax increases on city residents.

Weirton’s user fee was enacted in 2004, with $2 per week from all who work in the city put toward street paving. The fee raises approximately $900,000 each year. City Manager Joe DiBartolomeo, during a budget work session Tuesday, said the original bill would have resulted in a loss of between $12,000 and $13,000 a year for Weirton.

Chester enacted its $2 per week fee in 2019, with funds going toward public safety, public health and infrastructure upkeep.

Foster reformed his amendment after Del. Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, asked about cities with bonds tied to user fee revenues. The change would prevent user fees utilized to secure municipal revenue bonds from being reduced or removed until the bonds are paid in full.

“We could be putting our municipalities in a position where there would be a portion of time between this going into effect and them coming up with another set of funds to cover obligations that this money may currently be covering,” Storch said.

Opposition to the bill and amendment was bipartisan, with both Republicans and Democratic committee members raising concerns about the bill.

“I come from one of these cities that are listed here,” said Del. John Kelley, R-Wood. “It is enough money that it’s going to affect the budget of the city of Parkersburg if we pass this bill. It’s even going to be worse if we pass the amendment. I’ve got some real problems with it.”

House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, accused committee members of voting to “defund the police” by eliminating the user fee for cities. He said the bill and amendment was an excuse by some to receive services without paying for them.

“If an emergency happens here at the Capitol, guess what? Police are going to show up. Firemen are going to show up and we’re going to reap the benefits of their services,” Fluharty said. “How many may be out of work? Who is going to get taxed next, West Virginia? We’ll get taxed next because we’re going to lose money coming in from people from out of state that are paying a fee.”

Listening in to Wednesday’s meeting, Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott said the bill does the opposite of giving cities and towns local control. He praised Fluharty and Storch for their no votes on the amendment and bill.

“Whatever the guiding principle here, it is not conservatism,” Elliott said. “In Wheeling, we are using user fee proceeds to give our police department its first new headquarters since 1959. We are also replacing a woefully outdated fire department headquarters. If Delegate Foster believes these projects are unnecessary, he is welcome to come to Wheeling, visit both existing facilities, and say so.”

HB 2256 passed the committee by a 12-10 vote. Its next stop is the House Finance Committee.

(Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)


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