Can we learn from West Virginia?

Published 12:41 am Saturday, May 10, 2014

Among my tasks this week was to review entries in the West Virginia Press Association’s newspaper contest. My categories? Governmental reporting and crime and courts.

First, let me say that Alabama appears to have nothing on West Virginia when it comes to political corruption. But their state government has implemented one darn good idea.

You might have heard of home rule. There’s not much of it in Alabama’s Constitution of 1901, which keeps power centralized in Montgomery. That means, for instance, that no county commission in the state can levy taxes, except for schools. If they need to increase revenue to operate a landfill, improve the roads, or any other infrastructure project, they need help from the state legislature, which generally is in session four months of the year.

In West Virginia, the legislature implemented a pilot program for home rule. The program gave those participating communities more power to identify specific state rules that restrict their ability to carry out their duties efficiently and to propose effective solutions.

An auditor who evaluated the initial program said “findings included that proposals from the participating communities have proven beneficial by increasing revenue, streamlining administrative matters, simplifying licenses and more.”

So of the initial programs were so good that they were expanded statewide, while others resulted in court challenges.

Leaders in Wheeling, W.Va., used their participation in the program as an opportunity to deal with vacant property. Its program forces property owners to register vacant buildings and pay a fee based on how long a particular building has been empty. The amount collected in fees was not significant, but the number of abandoned buildings demolished – 19 at the time the story I read was printed – was significant.

Newspaper editors sometimes get hammered with questions from readers about things those readers think should be different. Usually, I am quizzed about the elusive “they.”

“Why don’t they make people do ….?”

And often, the very issue Wheeling, W.Va., addressed is one on which I am hammered. The thing is, local governments can require property owners to make sure their property and structures are safe. But they can’t require them to update those buildings, or to make them look more attractive. Lack of home rule in Alabama ties their hands. There is an abatement process through which a municipality can require someone to have weeds cut, board up an unsafe structure so that no one can get in, or demolish those unsafe structures beyond repair. But the process is long and arduous.

As I noted an abandoned house yesterday not far from downtown, I couldn’t help thinking that West Virginia might be on to something. An annual fee might encourage whomever owns that abandoned house to do something with it.