WHEELING - Less than 18 months remain in West Virginia's Home Rule pilot program, and if a permanent version is not approved before July 2013, the state could lose a "very valuable tool for cities," Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron said.
It is up to the West Virginia Legislature to continue the Home Rule program, which began July 1, 2008. The program, which lasts for five years, allows four municipalities - Wheeling, Huntington, Charleston and Bridgeport - to essentially govern themselves by imposing certain taxes, fees or changes to their laws to better manage their cities.
Under current law, the state mandates what cities can and cannot tax.
Wheeling officials have made several changes under home rule. First, the city streamlined its business licenses from 77 to three, a move they said has made the city more business friendly. City Council also initiated the vacant structure registry program and approved the issuance of conditional use zoning permits.
Mayor Andy McKenzie lauded home rule earlier this month, noting he will continue to support the program for allowing Wheeling to take control of some of its specific issues.
Herron and West Virginia Municipal League Executive Director Lisa Dooley agree the pilot program has been successful, with both noting there is little chance it will end next year.
"It's been very positive," Dooley said. "Cities have been able to show initiative to become more business-friendly."
Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, said he would back renewal of the Home Rule program beyond July 2013, calling himself "an advocate" of providing more powers to municipalities.
"I hadn't heard any real complaints other than the litigation" in Huntington, he said. "There is an excellent chance the program will continue."
Dooley cited Wheeling's business license change as one of the most successful parts. Since the pilot program started in July 2008, she said the business license application process had been adopted by the Legislature for use by all municipalities.
Wheeling for many years has been able to enact vacant structure registration fees for dilapidated structures, but Home Rule gives the city enforcement power, Herron said.
Herron said if Home Rule ended, then the city could still impose the fees, but could not forcibly demolish the structure and then invoice the property owner.
Currently, property owners in the vacant building registry pay the following amounts: $500 one year after registration; $1,000 two years after registration; $2,000 for three years; $3,500 for four years; and $4,000 for the fifth year. An additional $300 is tacked on every year beyond the fifth year.
Conditional use permits are issued through the Wheeling Board of Zoning Appeals and let specific property owners use a structure in a way that typically would not conform with the zoning code.
For example, the city issued a permit to Frank Calabrese, owner of an Arlington Drive home, to rent out the building as a duplex. A duplex is not permitted in a low-density residential district, according to city code. Calabrese made a case that a duplex would be the best use for the structure - rather than trying to sell to a buyer or renting out the whole structure - and was awarded the permit.
If Home Rule would end, then the existing permits would be honored, Dooley said, but future permits would need to be approved on the state level.
Dooley said she does not see the pilot program ending despite "major opposition" in Huntington.
A Kanawha County judge has delayed Huntington's plan to implement a 1 percent occupation tax, but the city did on Jan. 1 institute a 1 percent sales tax.