West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler sees no reason why legislators should stop at accepting four additional cities into a pilot program giving four West Virginia cities broader authority to govern themselves.
Although Kessler expects education reform, prison overcrowding and the state's budget to top the Legislature's agenda during the 60-day session that convenes Wednesday, he is confident lawmakers will not only extend but expand home rule before leaving Charleston. The current program, created in 2007 and implemented a year later, will expire June 30 if lawmakers fail to act on it.
Home rule has allowed Wheeling to adopt various measures over the last five years, including charging a fee from owners who let vacant structures sit empty too long; the right to place liens for the collection of delinquent fees; streamlining business licenses from almost 80 to just a few; and granting conditional use zoning permits.
"I think it's been very well-received," said Kessler, D-Marshall, of the pilot program. "We depend on municipalities to provide a wide variety of services, but we hamstring them or hog-tie them when it comes to implementing things," said Kessler.
Twenty of 25 proposals among the four states have been fully or partially enacted, including all four of Wheeling's. The strongest opposition has come in Huntington, where three of four proposals face legal challenges.
A legislative audit released in November recommended expansion of the program, pointing out that several of the cities' proposals - including vacant building registration, lien power, streamlining licenses and expansion of the annual urban deer hunt season - have now been implemented statewide. Last month, a House-Senate subcommittee considered a draft bill for home rule expansion that would extend the program through 2018, continuing it where it exists and allowing four additional municipalities to join.
In addition to Wheeling, Charleston, Huntington and Bridgeport, W.Va., were also accepted into the program, originally set up to include five cities. One local city, Weirton, strongly considered applying in 2007 but ultimately decided to bow out, and the four cities that ultimately were accepted were the only ones to apply.
This time, however, McKenzie believes things will be different.
"I think it's going to be very competitive, which I think is good. ... I would not be surprised if there are more applicants than spots available."
But Kessler believes if more than four cities introduce strong plans for home rule, the Legislature should not deny them the opportunity to carry them out by placing an arbitrary limit on expansion. Moundsville, Bluefield and Shinnston all have expressed some interest in getting in on a potential second round of applications, according to McKenzie.
And McKenzie over the last week has traveled to Morgantown, Clarksburg and Weirton to pitch the program to city leaders there, and is expected to speak in Clarksburg tonight. He hopes those officials will urge their respective legislators to support home rule legislation if and when it is introduced.
McKenzie - who was a member of the state Senate when the initial home rule legislation passed in 2007 - acknowledged home rule is a major change. Some cities may be reluctant to accept additional authority, he said, while some state legislators may be reluctant to relinquish it.
"That was the concern five years ago, and that's the concern today," he said.