West Virginia cities present case for more autonomy
By Phil Sletten
CHARLESTON, West Virginia: Officials from several West Virginia cities gathered for a House-Senate subcommittee hearing on the so-called "home rule" pilot program, which was designed to give municipalities more autonomy from a centralized state government. Officials from the cities of Wheeling and Charleston, as well as the leadership of the state's Municipal League, lauded the pilot program and suggested that the state continue and expand the effort. The current version of the program will expire in July 2013.
Charleston's mayor, Danny Jones (R), said that the program had allowed the city to revitalize a park along a local river, clear unsanitary properties, and reach a police enforcement sharing agreement with South Charleston without having to go through the regular bureaucratic hurdles required by the state. Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie (R), who was a state senator when the legislation creating the original program passed in 2007, said the city was able to reduce the number of business license categories from 77 to three because of the program. "If you're a small business, or any business, frankly, in the city of Wheeling, we eliminated all the bureaucracy, basically," McKenzie said.
"They're able to tell you what the cost-efficient ways to provide services are, but they're hamstrung at times because of rules and regulations," Lisa Dooley, the Municipal League's executive director, said of the cities in West Virginia. "We'd like to see the scope expanded, and that would allow other cities the opportunity not to just be given carte blanche authority, but to apply to the board with innovative problem-solving solutions that work on the home front."
Two cities in the program have had less success than Wheeling and Charleston, however. Huntington's attempts to change its tax structure faces legal challenges, and Bridgeport's efforts to expand a fire service fee to areas outside of the city limits were unsuccessful.
Despite these setbacks, Charleston Mayor Jones noted that the cities have behaved well, and that the worst fears of the program's early critics had been allayed. "There's always been a feeling among some folks that if the Legislature allows the cities to have even a small modicum of home rule, that the cities would run wild. I think that what the last five years has proved is, that's not true," asserted Jones at the subcommittee hearing.