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Morgantown city officials plan to use home rule to curb couch burnings

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — After West Virginia University’s football team defeated Oklahoma State University in the fall of 2013, a crowd of students danced around a fire they had set in the middle of the street in downtown Morgantown, chanting as they celebrated the big win. When firemen arrived to put out the fire, the crowd taunted the officers and threw rocks at the fire trucks, making it difficult for them to contain the blaze.

Homes in Morgantown will be restricted against keeping upholstered furniture on their exterior porches.

While such riots have yet to be repeated, WVU students starting fires are an all too common occurrence— one that city officials are hoping to nip in the bud with a new tool in their arsenal: home rule. Home rule allows cities in West Virginia to pass laws that previously had to be enacted by the state legislature.

Now that Morgantown has been given home rule, its first priority is to pass a law that bans upholstered furniture from being moved to the porches of local residences. The law will apply to indoor couches and mattresses but not to typical outdoor furniture, such as wicker chairs and lawn tables

“The ban on indoor furniture outside will make it harder for students to find material to burn,” Morgantown mayor Jenny Selin says.

The cities of Bridgeport, Charleston, Wheeling, and Huntington were granted home rule in 2007 and they have used their enhanced municipal power to reduce crime rates in their cities. Huntington moved the closing times of their bars from 3 to 2 a.m. As a result of that measure and other law enforcement endeavors, the city’s crime rate was lowered, local residents say.

“Before home rule, other towns used to look at Huntington for how not to do things. Now they look to us for how to do things and it’s a great feeling,” said Mark Bates, a Huntington City Councilman.

Thus far, Morgantown has proposed five ideas to the state Home Rule Board. In addition to the indoor furniture ban, city officials will attempt to pass an amendment that allows them to place a lien against hazardous or condemned property without having to obtain a court order. This lien would allow the city to repair or remove buildings unfit for human habitation due to fire hazards, lack of ventilation, or unsanitary conditions.

Curtis Miers, owner of local Morgantown business, Campus Canteen, opposes a proposed enactment of a 1 percent municipal sales tax under home rule.  He says it would hurt his business.

City officials are also planning to use their new powers under home rule to levy a municipal sales tax of 1 percent, which would allow the city to generate more revenue for needed improvements to roadways and sidewalks. This would also allow Morgantown to more fully staff essential city departments to make such infrastructure improvements.

However, some local businesses are opposed to an additional sales tax. They fear it will hurt their revenue stream.

“The city already collects enough money for them to do what they want to do,” says Curtis Miers, the owner of the Campus Canteen on High Street.

Another proposed use of home rule would allow the city to pass laws and reach agreements with other governmental agencies via one reading rather than two readings, or one council meeting instead of two. Right now, it takes one month to complete an intergovernmental agreement, no matter how simple it may be.

Yet another planned use of home rule would be the enactment of a municipal court fee, dedicated to funding and maintaining technological upgrades within the court system. The court’s technology needs periodic upgrades and maintenance and the city doesn’t have the money to keep its technology up to date now.

 Morgantown City Councilor William Kawecki is hopeful that home rule will grant the city more power to solve its own problems.

“I think any time you can get the decision made closer to where the problem is, the better off you are,” Kawecki said.

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