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Bill would open home rule to all W.Va. cities

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — A bill making its way through the West Virginia Legislature eventually would open the state’s Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program to all towns and cities in the state.

Senate Bill 323 is on its third reading in the state Senate today. If passed, it would be sent to the state House of Delegates for consideration.

State Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, is the lead sponsor of the bill, which originated in the Senate Government Organization Committee, of which he is the chairman.

“It takes the cap off all Class I, II and III municipalities and it starts to admit Class IV municipalities,” Blair said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

According to state code, cities are classified by population. Class I cities have populations of 50,000 or more; Class II, 10,000 to 50,000; Class III, 2,000 to 10,000; and Class IV, up to 2,000.

When the state Legislature originally instituted the program in 2007, the Home Rule Pilot Program was open only to five Class I, II and III cities. Bridgeport, Charleston, Huntington and Wheeling applied and were accepted into the initial program, which was deemed an unqualified success.

When the program was extended and expanded in 2013 by legislators, the program was opened to 20 cities altogether, including the original five, and it was opened to Class IV cities after heavy lobbying by Town of Bath Mayor Susan Webster.

Bath is a Class IV city. According to the 2010 Census, Bath’s population was 624. Bath was the only Class IV city to apply to be part of the Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program Phase II.

The 2013 legislation allowed 16 more cities to participate in the program. Twenty-three cities applied. One was disqualified for not following the application procedure laid out in the legislation.

Six of the applicants were rejected, including Bath. Martinsburg, Charles Town and Ranson were accepted and have begun implementing their Home Rule programs.

Under SB323, four Class IV cities would be accepted into the program this year; 20 would be accepted next year; and in 2017, all Class IV cities would be allowed to participate in the program.

“A lot of the Class IVs won’t apply, at least that’s what I’m hearing,” Blair said. “There needs are different than the other classes. The Home Rule Board has had to learn how to handle Class IV cities. The board understands the Class I, II and III cities, and now they will have time to learn about the Class IV cities.”

The Home Rule Board was established by the Legislature to oversee the program, including selecting which applicants would take part in the program and what local programs the cities could enact.

Other changes that SB323 would make to the program streamlines the application process and would “sunset” the Home Rule Board in five years.

“Our ultimate goal is to decentralize government,” Blair said. “There are a multitude of diverse regions in the state, and the centralized government has been holding cities back. If the people don’t like the way a city’s administration is handling home rule, the people can vote them out.”

Blair is very much in favor of home rule, especially in the Eastern Panhandle, he said.

“And once we get municipal home rule taken care of, I’m very anxious to get started on home rule for counties,” he said.

Blair is quite confident the bill will pass the Legislature.

Twin bills expanding the Home Rule Pilot Program to a total of 27 municipalities were introduced in both the House and the Senate.

Blair expects the House to take up SB323, rather than the bill expanding the program to 27 cities, he said. He also expects the House to amend SB323 to allow per diem payments to members of the Home Rule Board, who have not been compensated for their work, including travel expenses.

– Staff writer John McVey can be reached at 304-263-3381, ext. 128.

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