Home Rule status sought

BUCKHANNON – Buckhannon City Council voted Thursday to apply for Home Rule status.

City Administrator Michael Doss explained at Thursday’s City Council meeting how Buckhannon’s application for Home Rule is unique compared to what other cities are trying to achieve through participating in the pilot program.

In a Buckhannon City Council work session, Doss explained the program is in it’s second phase. He said in 2007, the state Legislature implemented the first pilot program with only four cities.

The program is now expanding to include 20 total cities, including the original four: Wheeling, Bridgeport, Huntington and Charleston.

“Home Rule for the city of Buckhannon would provide the city and elected officials with the ability to chart their own course in how to operate and manage the municipality in areas such as finance, economic development, zoning, building and infrastructure,” Doss said, adding the program cannot supersede the U.S. or West Virginia constitutions.

“These issues uniquely associated with Buckhannon and the composition of our community and its citizens is very different from other municipalities such as Morgantown, Martinsburg, Wierton and Lewisburg, yet we are all governed by the same rigid statutes and operational functions prescribed by the West Virginia State Legislature.”

If Buckhannon applies for and is granted Home Rule, the program will begin July 1 of this year and last through July 1, 2019.

Answering an audience question, Doss said cities that choose to implement an additional sales tax on consumers in their municipality may do so; however, Buckhannon does not have any plans at the present time to do that. He said he cannot speak for future councils.

Doss said Buckhannon’s application is unique in that the city is not trying to generate revenue. Instead, Doss said tax benefits for Buckhannon that would result from the city’s application would be much further down the road and that the application focuses more on “quality of life.”

“Municipalities in the state of West Virginia are actually doing the opposite,” Doss said. “They’re actually implementing a sales tax. We are not implementing a sales tax.”

The Buckhannon application proposes a new enterprise zone in which a potential new or relocating business can benefit through an initial tax benefit, saving that company money and rewarding it for hiring more women and full-time employees.

Doss said this could attract new businesses and new and better jobs to Buckhannon. The tax benefits of up to a 100 percent rebate could last up to five years for the business, depending on a number of factors.

“What that equates to is real, real quality jobs within the city of Buckhannon for our citizens,” Doss said. “Even though Buckhannon is not receiving the direct tax from these businesses, they’re creating jobs. They’re creating what is called a residual effect.

“Those individuals will buy houses in Buckhannon. They’ll patron our businesses in Buckhannon. They’ll shop at our boutiques, get their hair done and shop at our markets. They’ll eat in our restaurants. So we do get some of that money back. Essentially, this becomes kind of the ‘Tortoise and the Hair’ effect and we’re, quite frankly, the tortoise.”

Other potential benefits of Home Rule that are outlined in the Buckhannon application include better control and enforcement of property nuisance and abatement ordinances. Home Rule would allow the city to issue citations.

“All we are doing is providing the teeth and strengthening our existing ordinances that we have,” Doss said.

Currently the Buckhannon City Police Department cannot hire a part-time officer, but Doss said it is in need of extra assistance. The Home Rule program could help curb the costs associated with hiring a new full-time officer and allow the hiring of a certified part-time officer, Doss said.

Home Rule also could allow Buckhannon to expand its reach when selling property by not only advertising a piece of equipment in the newspaper, but also online so that interested parties outside of the newspaper’s circulation could be made aware the item is available. Doss said this opens Buckhannon up to the possibility of a potentially higher bidder.

“The Home Rule Pilot Program would have a positive impact on the operational functions of the city of Buckhannon,” Doss said. “The ability to be able to enhance revenues, streamline processes, improve the community and create potential marketable economic development opportunities only strengthens our resolve to represent the interests of the citizens of Buckhannon.”

Doss said copies of the Home Rule application are available free of charge to citizens who stop by City Hall. It is also available online at www.buckhannonwv.org.

“Home Rule is not an empowerment of government, but more about the empowerment of citizens,” Doss said. “The establishment of Home Rule lets a municipality’s citizens decide what is best for them, and allows them to use the ballot box to answer yes or no as to whether the city government is going in the right direction.”

The home rule application ordinance was passed on its first reading. All present council members voted in favor of applying; Councilman Dave Thomas was not present for the meeting. If Buckhannon is approved as one of 16 new cities practicing the five-year pilot program, and the program is not renewed by state legislation afterward, the agreement is simply dissolved and operations of the city will revert back to its current state, Doss said.

The ordinance can be adopted after its second reading on May 22. The application must be submitted by June 2.