Home Rule

At 5 p.m. today, members of Parkersburg City Council’s finance committee will meet with Mayor Bob Newell to discuss the city’s application to be part of West Virginia’s expanded home rule program. The discussion will involve two main points – cuts to the business and occupation tax and a combination of the Municipal Building Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals. That combination would allow anyone seeking to appeal zoning variance decisions to go before City Council, rather than heading to the Wood County Circuit Court.

It looks as though city officials have taken the spirit of the home rule program – doing what is right for residents of a particular community, instead of implementing blanket policies for the entire state – and chosen a couple of steps that could make a big difference for Parkersburg.

However, in their discussion this afternoon, those officials must bear in mind a few points. Cuts to the B&O tax, in combination with the addition of a 1 percent sales tax are likely a very good thing for local businesses, but Newell is correct when he says those initial cuts must be relatively conservative in order to be certain the sales tax will offset lost revenue. This is not a matter that can be rushed.

It is also vital that attorneys confirm utility companies that have passed along the cost of B&O taxes to their customers would be required to pass along the savings if that tax is reduced. Utilities must not be allowed to pocket the difference.

Changing the process by which zoning decisions can be appealed will add a layer of bureaucracy through which the city must be ready to guide residents. For example, while allowing for appeals to City Council could eliminate the need for folks to hire an attorney, as they might for Circuit Court appearances, it could also leave those folks more exposed to political wrangling and legal technicalities for which they are unprepared. Will there be a process by which anyone appealing a decision can seek the recusal of a council member, should he or she believe there is a conflict of interest in the matter?

Council members, the public, the mayor, other local officials and business owners have a fantastic opportunity with this home rule application. Today’s meeting must be the start of a detailed and deliberate effort to get it right.