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High Stakes: Legislative session hits home for local communities

By JIM ROSS

The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. If all politics is local, then so are the concerns of government officials and Chamber of Commerce leaders on the Main Streets and back roads of West Virginia’s many communities.

In the upcoming 60-day regular legislative session and however many special sessions may follow, Gov. Jim Justice and the leadership of the West Virginia Legislature will have to deal with longstanding budget problems that have no easy or painless answers.

While they do that, the people back home have much the same list of needs they had before: infrastructure, economics, a healthy workforce. They want to be sure the solutions coming out of the Capitol don’t interfere with those needs.

Ravenswood

“I think one of the best things the Legislature can do is allow municipalities to have power over their own governments,” said Ravenswood Mayor Josh Miller. “I’ve only been mayor for seven months, but I realize how handcuffed you are. I think the home rule program has shown enough success that they should open it up for everyone.”

Ravenswood Mayor Josh Miller says the best thing the Legislature can do is allow local municipalities to have control over their own governments.
(Photo by Jim Ross)

Ravenswood is a city of about 3,900 people along the Ohio River in Jackson County. Its economy has been hit hard by the falloff in employment at the former Kaiser Aluminum works south of town and by the construction of big-box stores nearby.

Yet its main street through town — Virginia Street, which doubles as West Virginia 68 — has a steady movement of traffic on a weekday afternoon. The nearby William S. Ritchie Bridge over the Ohio carries U.S. 33 through the area, and tractor-trailers are frequent users.

Miller said Ravenswood has potential for growth. It has flat land along the Ohio River and access to rail, water and highway transportation routes. He said the area has more available flat land than anywhere in the state other than the Eastern Panhandle.

As with many communities along the Ohio, Ravenswood has its share of empty storefronts, although Miller is quick to note a couple are in the process of being remodeled for new businesses.

What the city needs from the Legislature is more authority to fine the owners of abandoned or dilapidated properties or to demolish those properties, Miller said. Home rule would allow Ravenswood to devise programs for beautification, too, he said.

The Legislature has a pilot program in place that allows a limited number of cities and towns to address local problems in ways they are not able to now. It also allows them to levy local sales taxes or income taxes to generate revenue they may need.

Ravenswood would like to consider a 1 percent municipal sales tax, Miller said, but the state’s budget deficit could put an end to those considerations. If the governor and the Legislature increase the state sales tax by another percent, communities such as Ravenswood would have a difficult time adding their own 1 percent. An 8 percent sales tax could be too much to ask people to pay, he said.

“I also hope the Legislature and the new governor work with the federal government and get us an infrastructure plan,” Miller said.

For smaller municipalities, that means improvements to their water and sewer systems.

“We can’t fix our roads, bridges, water lines or sewer lines by ourselves. The state is going to have to figure out how to help us fix our ailing infrastructure,” he said.

It also means improving broadband access, Miller said. West Virginia is part of a global economy, and it must improve broadband access if it is to become or remain competitive in the world market, he said.

“If we can’t do that, we’re going to become an island,” he said.

Businesses invest in places where employees want to live, and Ravenswood wants to be that pace.

“I can try to make this a place where people want to come to,” he said. That includes downtown redevelopment and upgrading the town’s parks, he said.

Ripley

Ripley city government’s finances are doing well, but the state government’s budget problems trouble Mayor Carolyn Rader.

“We’re not under a budget crisis right now, but things tend to trickle down,” she said.

Ripley is less than a dozen miles from Ravenswood. Where Ravenswood has a CSX track going through town and the Ohio River forming its border with Ohio, Ripley sits at Exit 138 of Interstate 77. Exit 138 is where Jackson County’s big-box retailers and chain restaurants have located. Access to I-77 also allows people who live in that area to drive less than an hour to jobs in Charleston or Parkersburg.

Rader says Ripley also would like to be a home rule city so it could be more flexible in dealing with its infrastructure needs. In this case, it’s an expensive project to upgrade the city’s sanitary sewer system.

Ripley already has spent $18 million to update its lift stations and replace some collector lines, Rader said. Now it’s looking at spending another $20 million to add a treatment plant to replace its 22 acres of lagoons.

That’s a lot of money for a city of 3,200 people, plus some who live in the Evans community to the east, Rader said.

Rader said she has talked with Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and Delegate Steve Westfall, R-Jackson, about the possibility of opening up the home rule program to all municipalities.

Rader said tourism efforts must continue to be supported. She said Ripley has a “huge” Veterans Day parade, hosts the West Virginia Chocolate Festival and is the site of America’s largest small-town Independence Day celebration.

“I would love to know what West Virginia’s tourism plans are,” she said.

She also would like the state to look at its annexation laws so annexation can be made easier for cities. On a local level, people in Ripley want to know the future of the Cedar Lakes Conference Center.

But overall, Rader sounds optimistic.

“I have a whole lot of faith in those people in Charleston that they’re going to find the path to take care of our problems,” she said. “They’re going to make West Virginia shine.”

Princeton

Robert Farley, president and CEO of the Princeton-Mercer County Chamber of Commerce, figures the governor and the Legislature will not be able to fix the budget deficit by cuts alone.

“We’re going to have to find some type of revenue balance,” he said. “We can’t keep cutting expenses.”

Farley sits on the board of New River Community and Technical College. He said New River has had its state support cut to such a degree that it can’t expect to endure much more.

“You just can’t keep cutting. You’re going to have to find some way to get money in here,” he said.

People in southern West Virginia are concerned about the state of the coal industry, and they hope the governor and the Legislature step in to help, Farley said. At the same time, they know solar and wind sources will play a role in the state’s energy future, he said.

“Give us some time to look at all these things to see what kinds of energy we need to have,” he said.

Broadband internet access is a need in southern West Virginia, Farley said.

One local concern is the West Virginia Turnpike. Farley said he hopes the state does not abolish the Turnpike Authority and place the road under Division of Highways control. He said the DOH doesn’t have enough money to maintain the Turnpike the way it has been.

Huntington

In the past two or three years, heroin abuse and addiction have become a major problem in the Huntington area. As part of that, a growing number of children born at local hospitals arrive in the world addicted to drugs that their mothers have been taking.

Lily’s Place in downtown Huntington helps wean those newborns from their addictions. Rebecca Crowder, executive director of Lily’s Place, said her organization receives no money from the state, but she is concerned about the effects state cutbacks could have on services to mothers and other family members with addiction problems.

In the business community, the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce is still polling its members about their concerns for the legislative session. Chamber President Bill Bissett said he expects the Chamber to go to Charleston with three or four high-priority goals. Those goals will be specific, and their results should be quantifiable, he said.

One thing he expects to be an issue for the chamber is workforce development.

Bissett said the Huntington Chamber has about 550 members, and most of them expect the Chamber to represent their interests in the Capitol, so he plans to spend time there this session.

“Given the budget difficulties, we’ve got to have a bigger voice and face in Charleston,” he said.

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