West Virginia Lawmakers Tackle Vacant Buildings, Insurance Liens

March 9, 2010

State lawmakers appear ready to increase the independence of West Virginia’s local governments, and they aren’t waiting on results from an ongoing experiment on the subject.

The Senate is expected to take up a pair of House-passed bills this week proposed by Gov. Joe Manchin. One would allow municipalities to keep tabs on vacant buildings. The other aims to help local governments clear away burned-out structures by filing liens on their insurance proceeds.

Both proposals emerged from the home-rule pilot project that since 2007 has allowed a handful of cities to test out expanded powers. West Virginia has one of the most state-centralized government structures in the country.

But the bills’ opponents want to wait until the project ends and reports results. Delegate Kelli Sobonya argued against both before their passage to the Senate. The Cabell County Republican said she resents attempts to make these policies permanent, given that performance reviews aren’t due to lawmakers until 2012 and 2013.

“If you’re going to call something a pilot project, be true to your word,” Sobonya said. “I just can’t understand why we would jump the gun.”

Supporters say the bills would aid cities and towns beset by gutted or otherwise dilapidated buildings that threaten public safety, attract crime and hamper economic development.

Their potential beneficiaries include Huntington, which is part of Sobonya’s district. Mayor Kim Wolfe and other city officials expressed support for the measures Monday while giving the governor a tour of several eyesores there.

Jim Pitrolo, Manchin’s legislative liaison, said the governor included these measures in his agenda this session after hearing from officials in that city and Wheeling. Both have pursued such policies as participants in the pilot project.

“These two proposals just rose to the level to where we did not think we needed to wait for reporting,” Pitrolo said. “We believe the reports will support what we already know.”

The West Virginia Municipal League, meanwhile, supports both bills. Executive Director Lisa Dooley sees no conflict between them and the ongoing home-rule experiment.

“I don’t see how we’re jumping the cart before the horse because we’ve come to the Legislature,” Dooley said. “These have been tried and tested in other states. If we had never had the pilot program, we would have brought this to the Legislature anyway. It just gives us a stronger position from which to propose these.”

The insurance lien bill passed 71-24 last week. Among other concerns, Sobonya cited the pending circuit court lawsuit filed against Huntington by the West Virginia Insurance Federation. But the federation’s executive director, Jill Bentz, said that legislation could help resolve the legal dispute.

The federation sued over the city’s initial stab at securing insurance proceeds to cover a building’s demolition and cleanup. Bentz said her group, the state insurance commissioner’s office and other stakeholders helped draft the bill.

“This seems like a good solution to address the concerns that the municipalities, and now the counties, have about people abandoning their properties,” Bentz said.

It would also provide insurers with a statewide standard, instead of piecemeal regulations that would vary from city to city, she noted. The judge in the case has agreed to hold off on any rulings until after the session to see what it produces, Bentz said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has been assigned the lien bill. With the session ending at midnight Saturday, Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said he wants to ensure it does not interfere with insurance contracts.

The vacant building bill would allow cities and towns to require the owners of such structures to register them. Municipalities that start registries could also charge these owners fees to cover police and fire services, or costs from repairing, closing or tearing down vacant buildings.

Sobonya believes lawmakers have defined “vacant building” too broadly in the bill.

“That makes me concerned about the true intent,” she said.

Sobonya also denounced this bill’s approach to increased home rule before the House advanced it to the Senate last month, 79-17.

“If we’re going to go down that road of saying,
’Municipalities, you need the authority, you need to make the
decisions, you’re accountable to the people,’ then let’s just let
them do everything,” Sobonya sarcastically told fellow delegates.
”Let them do everything, and we’ll just deal with statewide

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