CHARLESTON - Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie and City Manager Robert Herron met with state legislators Monday, urging them to continue the home rule pilot program that has allowed Wheeling to address vacant and dilapidated structures and reduce fees and permits for businesses.
McKenzie said he, Herron and Charleston Mayor Danny Jones were invited to speak to a House-Senate subcommittee tasked with studying the program and reporting to the Legislature when it returns to regular session next year. He noted the program that was started in 2007 is set to expire in July unless the Legislature votes to continue, expand or reduce it.
"If they do nothing, it goes away," McKenzie said.
Herron and McKenzie told committee members about steps Wheeling has taken under home rule, including a vacant building registry that allows the city to impose fees that escalate annually on the owners of such structures. The program also gives the city the power to force the sale of those properties to recover the cost of demolition or fees if the property owner does not comply.
According to Herron, 110 buildings are currently registered, with 40-45 already having been demolished or put back into use. He said building codes officials are now checking street by street for buildings that appear vacant, and it appears another 293 structures may be added to the list. But Herron believes as the list grows, so will the number of structures that are demolished or put back into use.
"Our goal is to have no buildings registered," he said.
In addition, Wheeling under home rule simplified its system for issuing business licenses, reducing the number from 77 to just three. And it is the only city in the state to issue conditional use zoning permits, in which the zoning of an affected site would revert to that of the rest of the area if the approved use of the site were to change. Five have been issued.
McKenzie noted the city also eliminated the fire service fee on cars and reduced the number of building permits from three to one under the pilot program.
"Frankly it has allowed us to eliminate bureaucracy for businesses and reduce the tax and fee burden on taxpayers," McKenzie said. "That would all be taken away (if the program expires). Our ability to fight dilapidated structures would be taken away. I believe for the taxpayers it would be a huge negative."
McKenzie said he and Herron also met with Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and other legislators who are not members of the committee. He said all those he talked to seemed to support home rule.
The state Municipal League also praised the home-rule pilot program during the subcommittee meeting.
"This has been a very progressive and a very successful pilot program," said Lisa Dooley, the Municipal League's executive director. "You haven't read about cities running rampant, or folks moving outside the cities. Businesses aren't leaving."
But the program has hit some rough patches. A pending legal challenge has blocked an attempt by another participating city, Huntington, to swap its $3-a-week user fee for a 1 percent user tax. That city did restructure its business and occupation tax while adopting a 1 percent sales tax on Jan. 1 through the home rule program. The fourth city taking part, Bridgeport, unsuccessfully sought to extend its fire service fee to parts of its coverage area outside of the city limits, Dooley said.
The five-year program has temporarily allowed a narrow range of expanded powers. The four cities applied to a special state board, explaining what they would do with the increased authority. Each city's plan required the board's approval, and the cities could also seek to amend those plans.