Mayor Optimistic on Home Rule Future

WHEELING – Mayor Andy McKenzie said he is optimistic the West Virginia Legislature will extend the state’s “home rule” trial period that is set to expire June 30, and on Tuesday he urged City Council to keep Wheeling a leader in accepting the additional authority granted to some municipalities under the pilot program.

McKenzie recently returned from Charleston, where he voiced his support for the program during a meeting with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and a joint House-Senate subcommittee tasked with evaluating whether home rule should continue. He told council members during their meeting Tuesday he is confident lawmakers at the very least will renew the current program, and may even allow a few more cities to join.

McKenzie has been a longtime proponent of home rule, he said, because it allows cities to reduce bureaucracy and tailor policies to the specific needs of a community.

“I think that’s a very important aspect of home rule. … Maybe what’s important for Wheeling may not be important for Charleston or Parkersburg,” said McKenzie.

If the program continues, McKenzie said one of his goals for 2013 is to look at what other cities have done with home rule and examine whether those changes would work in Wheeling as well. For example, he likes the way Charleston exercised its home rule authority to streamline how it selects contractors for design services on city projects.

Under current architect-engineering procurement rules, West Virginia cities must score bidders based on a number of criteria and award the project to the contractor with the highest overall score. Because of that system, City Manager Robert Herron said, council often cannot select the low bidder even if that company is qualified to do the job.

Wheeling was one of four cities accepted into the program in 2008, under which the Legislature relinquished some authority regarding taxation, licensing and other matters to those municipalities. Charleston, Huntington and Bridgeport are the other participating cities.

Changes Wheeling has made under home rule include legislation establishing a vacant building registration system and setting up an escalating fee structure for owners who let their buildings sit empty too long; streamlining the city’s various business licenses from almost 80 to just a few; and the issuance of five conditional use zoning permits that expire when an approved, non-conforming use of a property changes. However, all that will go away if the Legislature allows the program to lapse.

In other business, Herron announced the bid opening for an estimated $36 million to $37 million new water treatment plant is set for March 15. Council passed a 70-percent rate increase to fund the project last year, but an August decision from the state Public Service Commission dropped that figure to 53.1 percent after some of Wheeling’s water resale customers filed formal protests.

The new rates will go into effect after bonds for the project are issued next year.

“Our goal is to have all financing in place by the end of the fiscal year” on June 30, said Herron.

During the meeting, council approved spending $55,885 to purchase about 500 wireless water meters for the Clearview area in a 6-0 vote. Councilman Don Atkinson was absent due to his father’s death Sunday.