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W.Va. Senate OK's More Local Gov't Power-shifting

By LAWRENCE MESSINA

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) â¿¿ West Virginia would continue to experiment with shifting more government power to the local level by inviting 10 more cities or towns to take part through a measure unanimously endorsed Thursday by the state Senate.

The Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program would continue for another five years under the bill passed to the House. While opening it up so towns with 2,000 or fewer people could also apply, the legislation would greatly limit tax changes while putting several other topics off-limits.

Government in West Virginia is highly centralized. Charleston, Huntington, Wheeling and Bridgeport took part in the initial five-year pilot. Overseen by a state board, home rule allowed those cities to reduce taxes, streamline regulations, collect delinquent fees and target abandoned and blighted buildings. A legislative audit declared the pilot a success last year.

But Huntington also used home rule to replace the city's user fee with a 1 percent occupation tax. A lawsuit blocked that move, and Thursday's bill would void any occupation taxes enacted during the initial pilot. With a new mayor opposed to the tax, Huntington City Council is scheduled to vote Monday on repealing it.

Executive Director Lisa Dooley of the West Virginia Municipal League, said Huntington provided a learning experience for the pilot program but also revealed its built-in safeguards and ultimate worth.

"We're not used to home rule, and that's what happened in Huntington," Dooley said Thursday. "The home rule philosophy works, and that's what we're trying to convince the Legislature of."

Thursday's bill would preserve the other changes made by the four cities, and allow them to continue to participate. But the renewed pilot program would forbid any new taxes except a 1 percent sales tax if that city or town reduces or erases its business and occupation tax. Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, a vocal supporter of home rule, recently proposed such a measure.

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