Be It Ever So Homely

MOUNDSVILLE – Mayor Eugene Saunders and Councilman David Wood are generally proud of their city’s appearance, but they believe participation in the Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program will allow them help clean up a few unsightly structures.

Having the right to “repair, alter or demolish” properties that owners are unable – or unwilling -to maintain is one of five freedoms Moundsville leaders hope to gain via the home rule strategy. Other provisions of the city’s application include the opportunity to:

– Impose a 0.5-percent sales tax, which leaders believe could yield more than $1 million worth of annual revenue;

– Have the flexibility to determine business and occupation tax rates;

– Increase the city’s power to collect delinquent fees, with officials now estimating they have more than $253,000 worth of fees that are more than 90 days past due; and

– Reduce the number of business licenses from 45 to only a few.

“Home rule allows municipalities to control their own destiny,” Saunders said. “I hope that we are one of the 16 new cities selected for this.”

City Council will hold a public hearing regarding the home rule application at 7 p.m. Tuesday in council chambers at the Municipal Building, 800 Sixth St. The earliest council could submit its application for consideration by state officials would be following the April 15 council meeting.

“There is a lot of uncertainty out there about this,” Wood said. “We are not looking to impose a bunch of new taxes.”

Wheeling, Charleston, Huntington and Bridgeport received the right to home rule in 2008, while the state is now allowing 16 more West Virginia cities to participate in the program. Saunders and Wood said Moundsville’s approach is a conservative one.

“Every city has a problem with dilapidated buildings. We want to speed up the process, and this would allow us to do that,” Wood said.

Saunders estimated the city of 9,173 residents has about 40 dilapidated structures, including one on Poplar Avenue that has a tree growing through it. The home rule plan would allow Moundsville city workers to, following due notice, demolish the dilapidated property, while imposing a lien on the land for the demolition costs. The ordinance to give the city more power to collect liens could then apply as a measure for the city to recoup the funds used for demolition.

“Sometimes, when people die, their heirs don’t live around here. This leads to some of these houses becoming dilapidated,” Saunders added.

Wheeling recently used its home rule authority to apply a 0.5-percent sales tax, though initial revenue projections have not come to fruition. In Moundsville’s application, officials state their belief that the city’s retail businesses are “able to support a small increase in sales tax,” which they believe could replace some of their B&O revenue if they reduced this tax rate.

“Right now, the state tells you what you can charge on B&O. Under home rule, we could have more control over the rates,” Saunders said.

“If we instituted a sales tax, we would take a hard look at how we could reduce B&O,” Wood added.

Moundsville would also like to reduce its number of business licenses from 45 to only a few. Prior to gaining home rule power, Wheeling had 77 different business licenses for everything from fortune telling to junk dealing and coin-operated toilet lockers. Home rule permitted the Friendly City to cut this number of licenses to just three, thus reducing paperwork and administrative time.

“We have a lot of different licenses now. Consolidating them would help reduce paperwork for us – and make it easier to start a business here,” Wood said.

Under home rule, cities can levy taxes or enact new laws as long as they do not contradict the U.S. or West Virginia constitutions or violate portions of West Virginia Code dealing with the Uniform Controlled Substances Act, crimes and punishments and criminal procedures.

If the West Virginia Municipal Home Rule Board accepts Moundsville to the program, the provisions of the application do not automatically become law. Rather, city council would still need to approve each individual ordinance. Once the board approves a city’s plan, the city cannot change it unless the board agrees.

Saunders thanked Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie for assisting Moundsville craft its home rule strategy.

“Mayor McKenzie has been a big help to us on this,” he said. “I am really hoping Moundsville can get in on this.”