WHEELING - As West Virginia continues down the path of giving its cities more authority to govern themselves, Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie believes the move toward more "home rule" is coming not a moment too soon.
As costs such as health insurance and pension benefits rise and the availability of federal funding falls, local governments must increasingly look to themselves for fiscal sustainability, according to McKenzie, who heads a city in Wheeling that has taken the lead in seizing opportunities offered through West Virginia's Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program.
"The demand on municipalities across the state is increasing. There's no more easy dollars from Washington," he said.
Most recently, Wheeling used its home rule powers to enact a 0.5-percent sales tax. Though initial collections from the tax haven't met expectations, officials hope that money will allow the city to address infrastructure needs and modernize WesBanco Arena.
Other changes Wheeling has made under home rule include streamlining the city's various business licenses from almost 80 to just three, issuing "conditional use" zoning permits and establishing a vacant building registration program that includes an escalating fee structure for owners who let their buildings sit empty too long.
"It's allowed us to be more aggressive in going after property owners who have walked away from their buildings," McKenzie said. "It's allowed us to be much more proactive."
Though McKenzie doesn't believe any new home rule initiatives are imminent, he said city leaders are always looking for new ways to use home rule. City Manager Robert Herron said one thing he'd like to see in the coming years is a change in procurement procedures for professional services.
Under state law, cities have little flexibility in selecting architects to design projects such as the J.B. Chambers Recreation Park in East Wheeling or the planned arena upgrades. Bidders are graded according to a specific set of criteria, and cities may only enter into negotiations with the top scorer.
This, Herron said, can prevent cities from awarding a contract to a firm that's perfectly qualified for a job and may be willing to do it for less.
"What I'd like to see us do is have the ability to qualify more than one (contractor) and negotiate price and scope with all of them," he said.
McKenzie hopes state lawmakers - who approved 16 additional slots in the home rule program last year - will go even further and approve a bill proposed by state Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, that would extend home rule to counties, as well.
Ohio County officials have been eyeing a second Interstate 70 interchange at The Highlands retail development for some time, but the West Virginia Division of Highways lacks the funding to complete the project. A bill introduced in the Legislature would expand the county's tax increment financing district and provide the county additional revenue to do it themselves.
"If they had home rule, they wouldn't need to go to Charleston begging for help," McKenzie said.
Moundsville and Weirton are among the cities hoping to be selected for the Home Rule program in the future.