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WV officials discussing home rule for counties

PARKERSBURG, W.Va. — While Wood County commissioners may agree Home Rule for counties would offer them more revenue options, they are concerned about the perimeters of such legislation.

Home rule is a program that gives local governments autonomy from the state government, allowing them to enact policies specific to their needs. It is available to 26 cities in West Virginia under a pilot program.

During the legislative session earlier this year, a proposal to grant counties Home Rule stalled in a Senate finance committee.

The caveat with that legislation was that the funds raised would go to road maintenance. West Virginia counties do not now have that responsibility; that is strictly a state responsibility.

The West Virginia County Commission Association is soliciting the opinion of commissioners throughout the state on the topic of Home Rule.

Commissioner Blair Couch said while he favors such an idea, he is concerned there could be consequences the county doesn’t want or need if the wording isn’t crafted well.

“When they change the rules and regulations it may hoist more expenses on us or have other consequences; it may be more than just allowing a 1 percent sales tax,” Couch said.

“I would want to see how they are going to frame it, but I love the idea,” he said. “It would probably require counties to have to max out the levy rates before you could do any other tax.”

“The first time they wanted it for road maintenance, and I don’t agree with that. I prefer that stay with the state,” commission President Steve Gainer said.

“I think we could do a lot of good with the ability to change the rules; in general, I think it’s a great idea,” Couch said.

“When you raise the levy rate you put all the burden on the property owners. With a sales tax you’re getting people coming in here. I think it is a fairer tax,” said Commissioner Bob Tebay.

“The regional jail bills continue to rise. The influx of hard drugs from out of state is increasing arrests and the need for additional prosecutors and police. Our local volunteer fire departments are currently seeking a fire fee. If we (the county) had a sales tax we could handle their needs without a fire fee on real estate,” Tebay said.

Tebay noted there is a possibility of legislation that could increase the Homestead Exemption.

“One-third of all homes in Wood County are presently on the Homestead Exemption,” he said. Another possibility that is being floated is to consolidate some counties, he said.

“This could increase expenses for larger counties,” Tebay said.

“With a sales tax though it might be another burden on the less fortunate when they are trying to buy groceries,” Couch said.

“It will be interesting. Home Rule would give us some breathing room,” Couch said.

Earlier this week, the Municipal Home Rule Board approved two more municipalities, Elkins and Harpers Ferry, to join the 26 that have been granted Home Rule status.

The acceptance makes Harpers Ferry the first Class IV municipality to receive Home Rule status. In addition, the board approved amendments to the Home Rule plans of Bridgeport and South Charleston to allow them to implement a 1 percent city sales tax.

The Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program was created in 2007 and began with four cities: Charleston, Huntington, Wheeling and Bridgeport. The initial pilot program lasted five years and granted those cities authority to enact ordinances, acts, resolutions, rules and regulations without regard to state law with several exceptions.

Home-Rule municipalities must still comply with the constitutions of the United States and West Virginia, and some state laws, such as criminal and controlled substance laws, are still off-limits.

Based on its initial success, the 2013 Legislature moved to continue and expand the program to 16 more cities. In October 2014, the Home Rule Board accepted the following cities into the pilot program: Bluefield, Buckhannon, Charles Town, Clarksburg, Dunbar, Fairmont, Martinsburg, Milton, Morgantown, Nitro, Parkersburg, Ranson, Shinnston, South Charleston, Vienna and Weirton.

On March 14, 2015, the West Virginia Legislature expanded the program a second time, permitting the addition of 14 more municipalities. The bill specified that four of the new municipalities must be Class IV, which is the designation for towns or villages with populations of fewer than 2,000 people. In September 2015, the Home Rule Board accepted six cities into the program: Beckley, Grafton, Moundsville, Oak Hill, Princeton and Saint Albans.

Municipalities seeking Home Rule authority may submit applications to the board any time; there is no deadline to apply. The application must include a written plan outlining which state laws, policies, acts, resolutions, rules or regulations are preventing the municipality to carry out duties in the most cost-effective, efficient and timely manner, as well as specific problems created by the laws and proposed solutions.

The 2015 county Home Rule legislation stalled in a Senate Finance Committee. A similar House bill was also drafted, but went nowhere.

The Legislature will reconvene for the 2016 session in January.

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