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W.Va. Municipal Home Rule Program gets strong Legislative support

By Michelle Dillon

Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT, W.Va.  — A bill opening up West Virginia’s home rule program and making it permanent was passed this month by the Legislature.

SB 441 would make the home rule pilot program permanent and would any municipality to apply.

The bill was introduced in the Senate on Feb. 24. It passed the Senate with a vote of 30-3 with one senator absent. Both Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, whose district includes part of Marion County, and Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, voted for the bill.

It was introduced in the House on March 13. It passed the House with a 92-2 vote with five not voting and one excused. Delegates Mike Caputo, D-Marion, Guy Ward, R-Marion, and Linda Longstreth, D-Marion, voted in favor of the bill.

The bill became a completed legislative action on April 8. The bill’s lead sponsor was Dave Sypolt, R-Preston. The cosponsors were Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, and Randy Smith, R-Tucker.

The purpose of the bill is to establish the municipal home rule pilot program as a permanent program. It is also to allow all municipalities to participate in the program and to prohibit participating municipalities from passing ordinances contrary to certain laws governing professional licensing or certification of public employees.

The home rule pilot program was created by the Legislature in March 2007 and started with Bridgeport, Charleston, Huntington and Wheeling. In 2014 the program was expanded, adding 16 more municipalities, the website said.

“‘Home rule’ refers to a state constitutional provision or legislative action that provides a city or county government with a greater measure of self-government. Home rule involves two components: (1) the power of local government to manage ‘local’ affairs; and (2) the ability of local government to avoid interference form the state.” according to wvleap.wvu.edu.

West Virginia’s home rule program still requires the local proposals to be approved by the state, the website said.

Currently the cities participating in the home rule program are: Charleston, Beckley, Bluefield, Clarksburg, Fairmont, Huntington, Martinsburg, Morgantown, Parkersburg, South Charleston, St. Albans, Vienna, Weirton, Wheeling, Bridgeport, Buckhannon, Charles Town, Dunbar, Elkins, Follansbee, Grafton, Lewisburg, Milton, Moundsville, Nitro, Oak Hill, Princeton, Ranson, Shinnston, Weston, Auburn, Harpers Ferry, New Cumberland and Shepherdstown, according to the West Virginia Department of Commerce.

Fairmont is the only municipality in Marion County that is part of the home rule pilot program.

As previously reported by the Times West Virginian, Fairmont applied to the program in 2014. The city proposed a 1 percent sales and service tax, a reduction of Business and Occupation (B&O) taxes for retail and the elimination of the tax on wholesale and manufacturing.

The city also proposed tax credits for occupying a previously vacant building and restoring historic structures and offered a longevity credit to existing businesses as they meet milestones.

The city was approved for home rule in October 2014.

Ward said that any municipality thinking of applying for the home rule program should use Fairmont as a blueprint.

Ward said he heard from people in state government that Fairmont’s home rule application was one of the better application they had seen.

The biggest benefit Fairmont got from becoming a home rule municipality was being able to create a sales tax and keep its B&O tax, Ward said.

A lot of towns that have already become home rule did so to address financial issues. Home rule gives towns flexibility to address these issues, he said.

Ward does not expect a big rush of municipalities applying to be home rule. It is a long, drawn-out process and is costly, he said.

“It’s a good thing because it’s going to give them the opportunity to become a home rule town or city if they want to be,” Ward said about the change to the program “Most towns and cities that become home rule do so because of a need.”

They usually need to change their tax structure or address dilapidated buildings, he said.

Eventually The Town of White Hall, of which Ward is mayor, may try to become a home rule town, but not any time soon, he said.

“The thing I like about home rule or anything like this, it gets the government closer to the people,” Ward said.

Beach thinks that the bill is a good piece of legislation.

“I obviously would caution (municipalities) to proceed slowly and maybe reach out to other cities who have already taken action within the framework of the home rule project,” Beach said.  “The home rule will definitely create some opportunities for (municipalities) to address some of the needs they have, just in flexibility if nothing else.”

Beach has not heard any negative comments about the legislation. The home rule program has proven itself since it was created, he said.

“I think it has shown success,” Beach said. “There was an audit. It was completed I think five years in and that audit also showed the Legislature that things are progressing well along the lines that we hoped it would be.”

Beach said he thinks it is a wonderful program and he wishes any community that becomes part of the home rule program success.

The bill still has not yet been signed by Gov. Jim Justice to become official.

Email Michelle Dillon at [email protected].

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