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Cities eye possible home rule expansion

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Officials in several West Virginia cities are interested in participating in the state's experiment with shifting more government power to the local level. But they are waiting to see what the Legislature does with a bill that would extend and expand the Home Rule Pilot Program.

"We were keenly interested in home rule five years ago and we're still keenly interested in home rule," Andy Blake, acting Ranson city manager, told The Journal. "But we would like to see what final bill is passed. It depends on what bill comes out of the Legislature."

The bill passed Thursday by the Senate would extend the pilot program for another five years and open it up so towns with 2,000 or fewer people could also apply.

"The Senate bill would help municipalities," Mark Baldwin, Martinsburg city manager, told The Journal. "But we want to see how it plays out in the House of Delegates."

Clarksburg City Manager Martin Howe said his city was interested in the initial pilot but did not apply to participate because of the challenging deadline.

"We definitely are still interested," Howe told The Exponent Telegram. "Overall, this really puts governing back down to the local level."

Charleston, Huntington, Wheeling and Bridgeport took part in the initial five-year pilot. Overseen by a state board, home rule allowed those cities to reduce taxes, streamline regulations, collect delinquent fees and target abandoned and blighted buildings. A legislative audit declared the pilot a success last year.

But Huntington also used home rule to replace the city's user fee with a 1 percent occupation tax. A lawsuit blocked that move, and Thursday's bill would void any occupation taxes enacted during the initial pilot. It also would forbid any new taxes except a 1 percent sales tax if that city or town reduces or erases its business and occupation tax.

"The sales tax is a big step," Blake said. "It would be a positive net income on the city. It would be a pass-through tax and would not be a burden on the business owner."

Regardless of the home rule program, Blake would like to see the Legislature amend that part of state code.

"Municipalities have demonstrated the flexibility to structure taxes to reduce the burden [on businesses and residents]," he said.

Bridgeport Mayor Jim Christie said he is not concerned with some of the bill's restrictions.


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