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Home rule bill stirs interest in Eastern Panhandle

April 18, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - If Martinsburg merged with Berkeley County, it could become West Virginia's largest "city" and would allow community leaders to apply for "home rule" as part of a pilot program approved last month by lawmakers, state Sen. John Yoder said Tuesday.

"You would have to put away any infighting between the county and the city," said Yoder, a sponsor of the Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program detailed in Senate Bill 747.

"Instead of Berkeley County asking for five commissioners, they could ask for home rule (and metro government)," Yoder said, before conceding the idea "may not be a political reality."

But if the two governments should decide to converge into a "metro" government, Yoder said the combined population, now approaching 100,000, could help get more grant money for needed infrastructure and other projects.

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If accepted by the state into the pilot home rule program, the combined government could be empowered to come up with its own solutions to congestion on area roads or other problems, Yoder said.

"I think what (SB 747) allows is a lot of creativity," Yoder said.

Even without forming a metro government, Charles Town, Ranson and Martinsburg are eligible to apply for the home rule pilot program, according to Lisa Dooley, executive director of the West Virginia Municipal League.

"I've received 10 or 12 calls from cities wanting information," Dooley said Tuesday. There are 61 eligible Class I, II or III municipalities across the state.

The Martinsburg City Council on Tuesday informally directed City Manager Mark Baldwin to pursue more information about the pilot program, and Ranson Mayor David Hamill and Charles Town Mayor Peggy Smith said they also were interested in the program.

"With home rule, it would not only be good for us, but good for the state," Martinsburg Mayor George Karos said.

According to Dooley, interested cities must submit their home rule program plans by Jan. 1, 2008. The plans are expected to identify specific laws that stymie a city's potential efficiency and propose solutions to problems caused by existing statutes.

A yet-to-be-formed Municipal Home Rule Board that will be chaired by Gov. Joe Manchin or his designee, is expected to select five cities and/or metro government to be part of the home rule project, according to information Dooley sent to Baldwin. The selections are scheduled to be made June 1, 2008.

The program is slated to expire July 1, 2013, but Yoder said changes implemented, such as a creative funding mechanism for the Raleigh Street Extension project, would be "grandfathered" to protect it.

Ranson Mayor David Hamill said Tuesday that he was hoping to have state Sens. Ed Bowman or Brooks McCabe visit to help explain the potential of the home rule legislation.

"There will be movement because we are interested," Hamill said. He anticipated that that the city would have more leverage to win grants in a partnership with Charles Town. The combined population of the neighboring cities is about 7,500 or 8,000, Hamill said.

Mayor Peggy Smith said she lacked specifics on the home rule legislation, but indicated she hoped to discuss the bill at the next town council meeting in two weeks.

"I would like to pursue it," Smith said.

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