Home rule is nothing

It is my opinion that the level of government that is the most relevant is that which is the most local.

That is why I look forward to the annual Legislative Summit hosted by the Berkeley County Council. It was held at the Blue Ridge Community and Technical College on Dec. 3. The invitees included all of the elected officials of the counties of Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson and the members of the state House of Delegates and the state Senate representing those counties. The public was also welcome. Berkeley County Councilman Bill Stubblefield moderated both the morning and afternoon sessions – and I might interject that he did a yeoman’s job.

In addition, in attendance was Vivian Parsons, the Executive Director of the County Commissioners’ Association of West Virginia – a lobbying group for its member county commissions. I note this because the purpose of the Legislative Summit is to promote communication between local and state government. During the morning session, the county officials hashed out a list of legislative priorities to present to state legislators during the afternoon session.

Parsons had a lot to say at the meeting, providing information regarding the priority issues for other counties around the state. Her most noteworthy statement, however, came during a more general discussion of CCAWV policy positions. It concerned the issue of Home Rule.

According to Parsons, the CCAWV supports terminating the current Home Rule pilot program currently underway in West Virginia and, although the CCAWV has supported the principle of Home Rule in the past, it does not believe the current pilot program is a good approach. As someone who has called for local control previously in this space, I was taken aback by the CCAWV position. In doing some research, I have to come to the same conclusion they have, although it may be for different reasons.

Here’s some background: According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia (wvencyclopedia.org), in its definition of Home Rule, “governmental power in West Virginia is constitutionally located in the state, with counties and municipalities having no inherent right of self-government.” However, the state can delegate powers to local governments, county or municipal. In legislation that took effect in 2008, West Virginia initiated a pilot program of “limited Home Rule” for municipalities for a trial period of five years. There were four municipalities that wound up in the program — Bridgeport, Charleston, Huntington and Wheeling.

It also created a seven-member Municipal Home Rule Board that included the governor, certain elected officials and members of certain associations, such as the West Virginia Chapter of American Institute of Certified Planners. Unless it is extended by the incoming legislature it is due to expire in June of next year.

According to a 2008 report by Clark Davis of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, under the pilot program, Huntington, Charleston, Bridgeport, and Wheeling would have been able to propose local taxes and programs that would otherwise have to get state approval first.”

Huntington proposed revising its “user fee,”, upping it from $2 a week to 1 percent of salary, in essence, making it a municipal income tax.

Here’s Mayor David Felinton in 2008: “It’s important to recognize that unless you’re making less than $10,400 a year, you are going to be paying more under this new system than you would, than you’re currently paying at again $2 a week on the user fee, $104 a year. This is done more fairly, it’s evenly, it’s 1 percent for anyone who’s working in the city.”

Say what?

I think that Home Rule could be a good thing, provided that true autonomy comes with it. However, this pilot program is not Home Rule; it is a tax increase wrapped in sheep’s clothing. In essence, the state government is saying that it doesn’t have the resources to bail out bankrupt municipalities or deliver on the services promised, so it is willing to grant them the authority to increase taxes on their residents to make up the shortfall. Paradoxically, this accelerates the decline. People vote with their feet. Huntington once had a population of almost 100,000 people – it is now half that.

This approach to Home Rule should be stopped in its tracks before it has the chance to spread. Home Rule should involve empowering county or municipal government whereby less is sent to Charleston; meaning that more stays local. We are taxed enough already and Jefferson County taxpayers are already subsidizing the failures of state government. Some autonomy might do us good.

— Elliot Simon writes from Harpers Ferry.

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