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MAP TO PROSPERITY: Urban vs. rural - Who pays for services rendered?

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  • Map to Prosperity

    Map to Prosperity

    Wednesday, December 24 2014 4:16 PM EST2014-12-24 21:16:46 GMT
    "Map to Prosperity" is a long-term project of The State Journal that will deeply examine government and business in West Virginia — both the perceptions and the reality.
    "Map to Prosperity" is a long-term project of The State Journal that will deeply examine government and business in West Virginia — both the perceptions and the reality.

People who live outside the city limits of Bridgeport but who rely on Bridgeport's fire department for service must pay the city a fee for fire protection, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled Jan. 15.

The question had an impact beyond the borders of Harrison County. 

It dealt with the ongoing questions of how cities, counties and the residents of both interact — of who receives services, who pays for them and the resentment that boils over when those questions must be answered.

People who live outside municipal limits will chant, "Taxation without representation." People inside the city will point to how they pay taxes to county government but receive less in return than rural residents do.

Historically, West Virginia government has been highly centralized. Decisions that could have been made at the local or institutional levels, such as the color of brick to be used on a new college building, have been made in Charleston, the state Capital. It's only been in the past generation the central government in Charleston turned loose of some of that power. West Virginia's limited home rule program has somewhat loosened the reins on cities, but municipalities still have strict controls imposed by the Legislature on what those towns can do.

If you ask people in most of the state's larger cities, they will say it's a struggle attracting people to live in town when there is better and more affordable housing just outside city limits or perhaps the next county over.

As long as roads, utilities and high-speed Internet access are available, people who have a choice of where to live and who are not tied to a particular city tend to look outside a town for housing.

Rural and urban areas have different outlooks on what they need, and that works its way to the halls of the state Capitol.

Bridgeport's fire fee

The Bridgeport Volunteer Fire Department disbanded in 2010. That left the city of Bridgeport to provide fire service to an area outside city limits as designated by the state Fire Commission. City residents paid a fire service fee. People outside the city didn't.

So Bridgeport asked for home rule powers to charge the rural residents a fire service fee. The fee would have been higher than that paid by city residents because the city's residents subsidized the fire department through the city's general fund.

Along with charging rural residents a fire service fee, Bridgeport wanted authority to place liens on out-of-town properties that had not paid the fee.

Harrison County officials opposed the fee and promised to fight it.

The legislative committee overseeing the limited home rule program approved Bridgeport's fee on rural residents, but the city did not use it. Instead, it cited another section of state law when it enacted the fee. Two Harrison County residents challenged it in circuit court. The judge found in the city's favor. The residents appealed to the state Supreme Court. Last week, the court's five justices unanimously ruled in Bridgeport's favor.

Bridgeport City Manager Kim Haws said the Harrison County Commission did all it could to stop the fee even though the county does not provide any financial support for fire service in rural areas.

"For the county to put up that roadblock … never made sense to me," Haws said.

Bridgeport has been collecting its fire service fee in the rural area. About 80 percent of people have paid the fee and the city is moving to collect delinquent fees and penalties associated with them, Haws said.

Haws said he understands several municipalities have watched to see how the lawsuit against Bridgeport was decided. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled in the city's favor, he expects several cities and towns to levy fire service fees on residents outside city limits.

The Bridgeport Fire Department budget is about $2.5 million a year. Service fees collect about $700,000, meaning the remaining $1.8 million comes from the city's general fund, Haws said.

"It seems to me the county ought to kick in some money to pay the balance of those costs," he said.

But people who live outside cities note that they have no say in the choices of services cities provide, the level of those services or how much they cost.

Harrison County Administrator William A. Parker said, "It's tough for people outside municipalities to have their voices heard."

Cities' view

The tussle in Bridgeport is felt in other ways in other communities in West Virginia.

"There are issues that counties and cities cooperate on readily, and there are some issues that municipalities and counties will differ on," said John Manchester, mayor of the Greenbrier County community of Lewisburg and president of the West Virginia Municipal League.

"Municipalities provide the vast majority of services for people in the state, so there is always interest in municipalities for people outside their borders for people to pay for the services they use.

"In the past they have not had to pay for that, so when the time comes for municipalities to ask people to pay for services they receive in the city, therein lies the problem."

Lewisburg is a small town — about 3,900 people — but it's the largest community in its area, Manchester said. In West Virginia, fire services in rural areas are organized by fire districts. Lewisburg itself is five or six square miles, but the Lewisburg fire district is about 99 square miles, Manchester said.

About half the calls answered by the Lewisburg Fire Department are outside the city, Manchester said.

"That is a significant part of our fire department budget that is paid for by people within the city," he said.

The challenge for cities and counties is to find a more equitable funding system, Manchester said. Greenbrier County placed a fire levy on the ballot last spring, but it was defeated "overwhelmingly," Manchester said.

Several larger cities in West Virginia charge user fees to people who work in town. Lewisburg has not tried that yet, Manchester said.

"We've managed to not even have to address that. There are other ways to align your budget that cause less friction," he said.

Taxation without representation

Ask people in Huntington what happens when a local fee or tax is discussed. 

The city council chambers fill with people crying "Taxation without representation" despite the fact that their representatives in the Legislature allow the cities to have certain taxes and fees.

Huntington was the first city in West Virginia to have a user fee. The fee is $3 per week charged to people who work in the city. It is supposed to cover street paving and public safety services that all people benefit from. The fee must be a flat rate. If it is based on income, it becomes a tax and is illegal.

One of the complaints about Huntington's user fee, at least in the early days, was that people expected to see more street repair and paving. 

Instead, the money generated by the fee went into the general fund, and most of the paving was done in election years.

When the Legislature allowed four cities to participate in the home rule pilot program a few years ago, Huntington probably pushed the taxation matter further than the others. Then-Mayor Kim Wolfe proposed a 1 percent payroll tax to be levied on the first $125,000 of wages and salaries. The cap was to prevent high wage earners, such as physicians and surgeons, from moving out of town. Protests followed, as did a lawsuit. Wolfe was defeated in his bid for re-election in 2012 as his opponent, Steve Williams, pledged to take steps necessary to prevent the payroll tax from being implemented.

While rural residents think cities are quick to charge them when they have no voice, people in cities sometimes think they carry the burden of paying for services rural residents receive.

Haws pointed to parks and recreation as one example. People who live outside the city may enjoy parks that city residents have built and maintain, he said.

"There needs to be some revenue sharing by counties whose residents use these resources, but counties don't do that," Haws said.

Manchester understands rural residents' suspicions.

Manchester praised Charleston Mayor Danny Jones' handling of the city user fee when it was adopted. Jones made sure people who paid the fee saw tangible results in street maintenance and other work.

"That's just smart governance," Manchester said.

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