City officials talk about home rule plans
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Charleston should no longer cut its business and occupation tax for retailers as originally planned, Mayor Danny Jones told City Council members Monday, three days after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a controversial bill extending the home rule program for another five years.
But while Jones said the city needs to live with the new home rule program, and outlined ways to spend the estimated $2.25 million the city will save each year by not cutting the B&O tax, Council President Tom Lane vowed to challenge the home rule law, saying it's unconstitutional.
"I don't think I've ever been more distressed by an act of the Legislature," Lane said of the new law that, while opening home rule up to more West Virginia cities, places a dozen extra restrictions on home rule cities.
In particular, both Lane and Jones have been critical of a provision that forces cities like Charleston to repeal gun laws out of step with state laws. Lane wrote the law City Council passed 20 years ago that requires a three-day waiting period and background checks for handgun purchases.
Waving a copy of the revised home rule bill at City Council members Monday, Lane said, "Half of this bill contains the [original] home rule bill; the second half talks about all of the prohibitive things -- things we can't do."
Lane said he's studied the bill and talked with others about its content.
"I've concluded it's subject to challenge on a constitutional basis because it has two purposes: one is home rule and the other is elimination of gun ordinances.
"I've also concluded it doesn't take effect until 90 days after June 1, 2014. So I think it's premature to do anything now. I've talked to legislators. There will be some bills introduced in the next session to try to fix this."
If that doesn't happen, "I personally will challenge the law," he said. "Danny and I have argued about this, but I can tell you the last time we addressed gun laws the people of Charleston supported us.
"The hubris and arrogance of the Legislature this year in my mind was unsurpassed. The Legislature is telling us we can't keep guns out of our recreation centers, out of our pools, even out of the Civic Center. But we're not going to take this."
By contrast, the often-fiery Jones was more resigned on Monday. He said he crafted a plan to fund Civic Center improvements through a new half-cent sales tax, coupled with cuts in B&O taxes, under original terms of the home rule extension bill. But he changed his mind after seeing all the amendments added on the final day of the legislative session.
"Remember, we're under the original home rule, passed in 2007," he said during the Finance Committee meeting.
"Then, when the new law was read, if you lower a tax, you can never raise."
So working with City Manager David Molgaard, Jones decided to amend the current home rule plan to add the sales tax while dropping his plan to cut the retail B&O tax.
"So now we're going to have more money," he said. "People ask, 'What are you going to do with the money?'"
He outlined three needs: more improvements to the Civic Center; fixing the Police Department's booking center entrance on the east side of City Hall; and helping fund the city's police and fire pension funds.
Those pension plans already consume 11 percent of the general budget, Jones said, up from 8 percent a few years ago.
"It's only getting worse," he said. "In the next seven years, another $4 million -- not just one year, every year.
"Hopefully the amount of sales tax will expand, and the Civic Center bonds will be paid off and we'll have money to put toward the pensions.
Helping the Kanawha County Public Library beyond current funding levels was not in Jones' cards, despite the library's funding woes and building program.
"My solution is to continue to fund the way we have been funding, more than $900,000 a year," Jones said. "It's a lot of money. They have a $40 million-$60 million [building] plan. I don't know how that will go. I told them we'll put in the last million dollars, but we're not part of your bonding plan."
Reach Jim Balow at email@example.com or 304-348-5102.