Parkersburg’s Mayor Supports Home Rule; Article Suggests Legislative Hard Sale

by Tony Rutherford HuntingtonNews.Net Reporter

HUNTINGTON, WV (HNN) – As one of the pilot home rule cities, Huntington jumped out of the gate with plans in place for the opportunity window.

Other state cities face fund raising dilemmas, and, Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell, president of the WV Municipal League, lobbies for the inclusion of more (and possibly all) state communities in the home rule equation.

Newell touted Home Rule as an alternative to the $2.50 user fee under consideration by Parkersburg City Council. in a recent Parkersburg News & Sentinel interview. According to Newell home rule allows cities to implement sales and income taxes, rather than assessing business and residents with a litany of creative fees --- i.e. police and fire fees, user fee, B & O taxes, etc.

Huntington, Charleston, Wheeling and Bridgeport became the “pilot” cities for the five year program. Newell did not put Parkersburg’s hat in the ring due to the uncertainty of the adopted programs if the legislature does not re-new, expand or grandfather the pilot cities and the laws they enacted.

Huntington’s tax reform package, which includes both an occupation and sales tax, passed council despite an angry majority of speakers commanding council members to vote against the tax. The tax passed; but, it faces additional hurdles, or, challenges, as Huntington’s Mayor Kim Wolfe prefers the designation of an obstacle requiring everyone to work together toward a solution.

The package must pass the state home rule authority, an agency that contains some gubernatorial appointments. Since Gov. Joe Manchin won U.S. Senate seat left vacant by Robert Byrd, the make up of the board will differ. If the Board gives a thumbs up to the Huntington proposal , it likely faces a court challenge.

And, the legislature has not “eagerly embraced” the home rule concept , Newell told the News & Sentinel.

"They don't understand it. They don't have a clear idea of what it is," Newell said. "These people are the same ones who say the state will succeed or fail on the strength of its cities."

However, newly elected legislator David Nohe (also mayor of Vienna) told the newspaper that the lawmakers are not likely to lift state-wide restrictions on the concept.

"In talking to some members of the Legislature, it would be hard to get through to them," Nohe said.

Interestingly, both of the Wood County supporters emphasized the significance of taxes in their explanation of the concept. The program is not a synonym for taxation; it’s a concept where the city, town or other municipality has greater control over their power. For residents, they do not have to lobby one or more legislators who think broadly i.e. entire state, but can approach city council members who address the best interests of the community.

Meanwhile, Huntington’s innovations and programs have a July 1, 2013 expiration without legislative intervention. Mayor Wolfe told the paper the tax reforms are an effort to attract more businesses to the city.

“It’s up to us to show [the legislature] how this works and how it has been beneficial,” Wolfe said.

As passed , the tax reforms eliminate the user fee and reduce B & O business taxes; however, the “occupation” levy on the earnings of workers inside the city limits sparked strong opposition.

By contrast, the land bank and fire insurance withholding for demolition spurred legal opposition but from the most impacted stakeholders, not the community at large. Other pilot home rule cities have crafted less controversial solutions, too.

Ultimately, it’s a fear of uncontrolled taxation that clogs the home rule concept.

Newell in the interview said legislators worry if large cities  have home rule, smaller cities would want it as well, leading to cities all over the state raising taxes just for the sake of raising taxes.