How do legislators intend to help cities?
Finding many of West Virginia's municipalities fighting population loss, urban decay, and dire financial pressures, the Legislature in 2007 created the Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program.
It authorized four municipalities - Bridgeport, Charleston, Huntington, and Wheeling - to enact "ordinances, acts, resolutions, rules and regulations without regard to state laws, rules and regulations" except for a few mighty exceptions.
The statute set up a Municipal Home Rule Board to oversee the experiments.
As Lawrence Messina of the Associated Press reported this week, a legislative audit "found that the cities that experimented with increased powers during the five-year program successfully tackled blight, simplified business licensing and strengthened their finances."
Five experimental programs went so well that all municipalities in the state may adopt them now.
Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie, a former legislator, said his city's use of regulatory wiggle room
allowed it to "lessen the burden, lessen the bureaucracy, lessen the taxes" of the city of Wheeling."
Charleston Mayor Danny Jones, a former legislator, cited cities' power to require the owners of vacant properties to register them now. Cities may now charge higher and higher fees to push owners to restore or demolish them.
Huntington Mayor-elect Steve Williams, also a
former legislator, said the home rule powers allowed his city to cut a tax on service and retail businesses and eliminate it for manufacturers.
Sounds swell all around, doesn't it?
But all three of these lawmakers-turned-mayors urged the oversight board to keep open the issue of giving cities new taxing powers.
What could be going on?
It's just a guess, but the little things the state has allowed these four cities to do amount to tinkering around the edges of fiscal disaster.
Over the decades, state politicians have graciously given municipal police and firefighters pension benefits that residents of the cities cannot afford.
Thirty-one West Virginia municipalities operate 53 retirement plans. Collectively, those plans have unfunded liabilities of almost $1 billion.
Charleston residents face a $120 million unfunded liability for police pensions and a $138 million liability for firefighters pensions.
Huntington residents face a $71 million unfunded liability for police pensions and an $88 million liability for firefighter pensions.
The state can now graciously give city politicians the power to tax the heck out of their residents - or it can do what should have been the case all along:
Give city officials a majority voice in pension decisions that affect their continued survival.
Otherwise, everybody's kidding everybody out of earshot of the people who will pay the bills for this folly.