By Mannix Porterfield
For the Daily Telegraph
CHARLESTON — Home rule might be coming to your neighborhood, but before it arrives, West Virginia lawmakers need to resolve one ticklish matter on expanding a pilot program — taxation.
An audit unveiled in this month’s interims gave high marks to the pilot created by the Legislature five years ago in Bridgeport, Charleston, Huntington and Wheeling.
The idea was to let them impose ordinances, acts, resolutions and deal with taxes, provided there was no conflict with state or federal laws.
Now, Lisa Dooley, the executive director of the West Virginia Municipal League, wants to broaden the program to at least four other cities, and possibly make it available to any town that qualifies.
Before that happens, however, Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, chairman of the Senate Government Organization Committee, warned her that taxes could prove to be a stumbling block in the upcoming session.
Snyder termed taxation “the thorny issue” and cautioned Dooley that if cities insist on welding that power, “They may be risking the entire legislation.”
Dooley disagreed, telling the Joint Committee on Government Organization and Government Operations, which Snyder co-chairs, “We just don’t want you to close that door.”
“Just don’t say no immediately,” she said.
“When you say it’s prohibitive, you tie the hands of the mayors who are actually reducing taxes and administrative fees, who are reducing the burdens on businesses and who have proven that.”
One such mayor, Andy McKenzie of Wheeling, buttressed that by telling the panel that his city that the best aspect of home rule in his jurisdiction was the power to deal with tax matters.
“What we were able to do was lessen the burden, lessen the bureaucracy, lessen the taxes in the city of Wheeling because of home rule,” said McKenzie, a former state senator.
“We were able in Wheeling to diversify and lower the tax rates and fees in our community.”
McKenzie said Wheeling isn’t trying to compete with fellow West Virginia cities but with Pennsylvania and Ohio, where home rule is more advanced.
Given an unfair tax advantage, he said, Wheeling is losing business to neighboring Ohio.
“The Business-and-Occupation Tax is probably the most archaic tax, not only in the state of West Virginia, but in the country,” the mayor said.
“We’ve got to start looking at things that really make West Virginia a progressive state.”
Appearing with Dooley to tout the benefits of home rule were Charleston Mayor Danny Jones and Mayor-elect Steve Williams of Huntington.
While some have belittled Huntington as the “red-headed stepchild,” Dooley praised the efforts in that city to clean away blighted neighborhoods where rundown homes were used by druglords.
Dooley said she considers Huntington “a poster for this home rule.”
One committee member, Delegate Rick Snuffer, R-Raleigh, said any decision about home rule in his Beckley hometown would be up to Mayor Emmett Pugh.
“I think the Legislature is wise in looking to extend it (pilot program) another five years and bringing in some of the other class cities before just turning it statewide,” Snuffer said.
Snuffer took exception to one idea advanced in the audit by the Performance Evaluation and Research Division — elimination of the seven-member home rule road.
“That makes sure cities that go through an application can handle it,” the delegate said.
On one item dear to cities — annexation — Dooley feels there is no room for criticism, or change.
“Our annexation laws are working,” the Municipal League director said.
“Their purpose is to facilitate a request made by a portion outside of a city that wanted to come in that were already receiving a city service.”