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Remote Control: West Virginia GOP Lawmakers Split on Autonomy for Municipalities

Photo Courtesy of W.Va. Legislative Photography West Virginia House Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, right, confers with a colleague on the House floor.

CHARLESTON — Over the last several years, Republican lawmakers have worked to give cities and towns in West Virginia more local control, but bills being considered this year could tie the hands of city leaders.

The latest example is House Bill 2256, passed out of the House Political Subdivisions Committee on Wednesday and sent to the House Finance Committee. The bill would exempt all non-residents of cities from having municipal user fees removed from their paychecks.

Originally intended to just exempt state employees from having user fees removed from their paychecks, the committee approved an amendment from Del. Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, to exclude all non-residents of cities that charge user fees.

Foster was a co-sponsor of HB 2256, and his amendment to the bill incorporates language from two other bills introduced by Foster, House bills 2324 and 2482.

In the age of COVID-19 and people often working from home, Foster said those people shouldn’t have to pay for city services they’re not utilizing.

“When you start looking at the idea of taxation without representation, especially during the age of COVID, we have people that aren’t ever in the city anymore,” Foster said. “But because the company they work for happens to be located in the city, they’re being charged $3 a paycheck when they may work three counties over from home. And that’s a big problem to me.”

Others, however, see HB 2256 and other bills as ways for Republican lawmakers to whittle away local control and exercise more authority over cities.

“What this bill does is it centralizes power in Charleston,” said House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio. “Their idea that all of this power must reside in Charleston and that they’re going to make decisions for cities when cities have taken upon themselves through the course of the city government and what they know is best for their community really just goes against what I thought conservatism was all about.”

USER FEE: A HISTORY

While counties are created by the West Virginia Constitution and have their own means of collecting taxes and fees, municipalities and towns are considered political subdivisions of the state with their ability to collect taxes and fees ultimately in the hands of the Legislature.

In 1971, the Legislature created State Code 8-13-13, which gives cities and towns power to create user fees to cover the costs of special municipal services, including police and fire protection, parking facilities, parks and recreational facilities, street cleaning, street paving and improvements, sewage disposal, and garbage disposal. The law requires cities to publish legal notices and gives citizens up to 45 days of the published notice to collect signatures of 30 percent of qualified voters protesting the user fee, triggering a special election to approve the fee.

State code doesn’t lay out how high a user fee can be, but it does state that user fee rates, fees and charges must be “reasonable.” While there have been various kinds of user fees over the years since the code was developed, over the last 20 years those fees have taken the form of weekly amounts deducted from paychecks of employees of businesses within city limits.

According to the Municipal League, Charleston, Chester, Fairmont, Huntington, Montgomery, Morgantown, Romney, Parkersburg, Weirton and Wheeling all have user fees ranging from $2 per week to $5 per week. Wheeling and Weirton are the most recent cities to implement a user fee.

The state Supreme Court of Appeals has heard several cases challenging the constitutionality of user fees, but in every case the court has determined that the user fee is constitutional and it is not a tax.

House Finance Committee Vice Chairman Vernon Criss, R-Wood, said the kinds of ways for cities and towns to collect tax revenue for essential services is limited. Gutting the user fee would be devastating for the 10 cities that rely on user fees to provide services and keep budgets balanced.

“We have over the years not done a very good job of allowing them to draw down tax revenues on a good basis,” Criss said. “We need to worry about the hidden demands placed upon these municipalities, especially because with federal mandates and state mandates with no monies to back them up there, they’re having a terrible time in some of these situations.”

Citing Parkersburg as an example, Criss said the HB 2256 could eliminate as much as $2.3 million in collections. In his conversations with other city leaders, Criss said Charleston could lose as much as $7.8 million and Huntington could lose as much as $8 million. A Municipal League official said they were still collecting information about how much HB 2256 could cost other cities, but it would easily be between $15 million and $20 million. Criss said any loss of revenue would likely mean layoffs before tax increases.

“The pressure on the tax dollar is so fierce that the option to raise taxes is just not an option,” Criss said. “You’ve got to work with what you’ve got with you. If that happens, then you start seeing layoffs in the fire department, you start seeing layoffs in the police department. I don’t think that the people — like the citizens of Parkersburg or Vienna — want to see that.”

WHO’S THE BOSS?

In 2019, the Legislature voted for Senate Bill 4, making the Municipal Home Rule Pilot program permanent. Home Rule gives approved cities more autonomy to implement new laws and ordinances. Originally a 2007 pilot program for Bridgeport, Charleston, Huntington, and Wheeling, the program now has 34 cities and towns.

Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, was lead sponsor of SB 4. Reviewing HB 2256, Weld said the bill takes away local control from cities and takes a step backwards from efforts to give cities and towns more of a say.

“I believe that local control is the best way to govern. The best decisions that can be made are by those who are closest to the people,” Weld said. “The way (HB 2256) was amended yesterday takes away from the cities, to a degree, their ability to govern themselves and make decisions as they see fit best. These might be decisions that I don’t agree with, but I feel that local control is the best way to govern.”

HB 2256 isn’t the only bill that limits the ability of cities and towns to govern themselves. Another bill introduced by Foster and passed Tuesday by the House in a 79-19 vote would prohibit cities from regulating the use of single-use containers, such as plastic bags and straws. HB 2319 would prohibit cities from creating their own occupational licensing program. And HB 2693 would eliminate Human Rights Commissions created by cities.

Foster, who supported SB 4 in 2019, said he regretted that vote and planned to introduce more legislation to gut the Home Rule program.

“I actually regret that vote because after seeing the outcome, it’s just been an excuse to tax our citizens more. I disagree with it now,” Foster said. “I actually have bills to repeal many parts of Home Rule because it was a mistake to give that authority not knowing at the time that it would just be a whole bunch of tax increases on our citizens.”

However, for Criss, Fluharty, and Weld, efforts to erode local control from cities and towns will cause much harm and unknown repercussions.

“It seems to be an urban versus rural thing,” Criss said in response to Foster and other Republican lawmakers supporting HB2256. “If we’re going to continue to have cities or towns within the confines of this state, you’re going to have to give them the ability to raise certain funds, to be able to pay for the services that those people desire to because they live and work in the city.”

“Years ago (Republicans) said we’re going to give more power to the cities,” Fluharty said. “Now they’re doing a complete 180 and saying all the power belongs in Charleston. I don’t understand that. Have you seen how things work down here? They don’t work very well.”

“I can see the municipality’s basis for making these decisions,” Weld said. “Again, for me, it goes back to local control and decisions being made at the local level. I can’t speak for anybody else, but this Republican is still for local control.”

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