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Public weighs in on possible home rule

By Staff | Feb 26, 2016

More than 60 people were in attendance Tuesday to discuss Shepherdstown’s application for the home rule plan. Many of the attendees were business owners who expressed concerns about some of the proposals in the application.

The West Virginia legislature created the Municipal Home Rule Pilot Program and the Municipal Home Rule Board to oversee the program in 2007, to allow approved municipalities to implement ordinances, acts, resolutions, rules and regulations without regard to state laws, with the exception that proposals had to comply with the U.S. Constitution, the West Virginia Constitution, federal law, chapters sixty-a (“uniform Controlled Substance Act”), sixty-one (“Crimes and Their Punishment”), and sixty two (Criminal Procedure”) of the West Virginia Code.

Several West Virginia towns and cities have implemented home rule, including neighboring Charles Town, Ranson and Harpers Ferry.

Town council is anticipating that a home rule designation will help address some of the unique trials Shepherdstown has, but focuses mainly on three key areas: Marketing/revenue generation and collection, public safety and property maintenance.

In terms of marketing and revenue generation, council believes that it cannot provide adequate funding for advertising to attract visitors to the area. Council is stating that self-governance will allow for an ordinance permitting private establishments to serve alcohol on Sundays beginning at 10 a.m., thereby attracting diners who might have otherwise traveled to Maryland or Virginia.

In addition, the town proposes raising revenue by implementing a 1 percent sales tax increase on all taxable sales under West Virginia code, while reducing the business and occupancy tax to 3.75 percent for utilities; language that includes appropriating more than the .25 cents per capita per year to spend on advertising, imposing liens for delinquent town fees, and purchasing tax liens on properties with delinquent taxes, providing right of redemption to the town. The revenue generated can go for advertising as needed.

The public safety focus of the application proposes the use of traffic cameras, reduction of speed limits and placement of new crosswalks. Additionally, the town will enact ordinances exercising similar authority to that of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act, such as regulation the hours in which alcolol may be served, conducting stings to regarding underage drinking and lowering the closing times of drinking establishments from 3 a.m. to 2 a.m. Council wanted to be clear that they do not have plans to expand staff, and they would not be replacing the ABCA, but rather give local police the same authority as the ABCA, so that officers won’t have to wait to act when there is an infraction.

Local businessman, Eric Lewis pointed out that surrounding municipalities have already implemented a 1 percent sales tax, so when making a purchase in Charles Town or Ranson, the total is 7 percent, rather than the state tax rate of 6 percent.

Lewis stated that a 1percent sales tax makes more sense for business owners because a B&O tax must be paid even when the business loses money, whereas a sales tax is just added on to the sale of an item sold and requires no additional paperwork.

“A lot of the local municipalities-Ranson, Charles Town, Martinsburg—are moving away from the B&O tax to the extent that they can and moving toward the sales tax,” said Lewis. “Everyone pays sales tax. It’s tacked on to the cost of something you’re buying. The business withholds that from you, then remits it to the taxing authority. In the case of a municipal tax in West Virginia, there’s no additional paperwork. You pay that to the state on the form that you’re already filing. West Virginia does the calculating, keeps a really small piece, then sends a check to the municipality.”

Mark Everhart owner of Pigeonhole, LLC cited studies that showed a 1 percent increase in sales tax directly correlated to a 4 percent decrease in sales. Additionally, border towns are hardest hit by sales tax increases.

“Sales taxes unfairly target lower income workers, who often spend the entirety of their paycheck from week to week,” said Everhart. “In Shepherdstown, that would unfairly target our students and service industry workers.”

“My restaurant caters to people who might not be able to eat elsewhere in this town,” said Maria Allen, owner of Maria’s Taqueria “We try our hardest to keep our prices incredibly low; we’ve only raised our prices three times in seven years.” She continued, “One percent means a lot to a lot of people in this town-especially if you’re living paycheck to paycheck. You guys (council members) need to realize that although we have the very rich in this town, we also have the very poor. We cannot exclude them from living and shopping here.”

Business owners spoke out against the implementation of speed cameras saying that it would deter visitors, seems unfriendly, and the revenue is shown to decrease over time. They also agree that bars should be allowed to continue to stay open until 3 a.m.

Todd Cotgreave, owner of Town Run Brewing said, “If bars close at 2, we’re going to lose an estimated $35,000 dollars a month-that’s in a February. When we opened the business, I was so surprised at 1:30 in the morning there was a whole bunch of people, calmly talking, taking sips of alcohol and having a nice time. Treating those people like criminals isn’t friendly. It isn’t Shepherdstown, and it doesn’t make sense, but where are you sending them? They will driving out of town limits to a place that is open later.”

Amid other concerns expressed, Mayor Auxer wanted to assure meeting goers that the town will not be spending money just to spend it. He said that council members try to be very careful with funds and not excessive in any particular area.

Business owners and council members alike proposed changing some of the language in the application to make it more fair and friendly to the local establishments.

Catie Delligati concluded by saying, “I think it’s great that we’re brainstorming and coming up with new ideas here, but creating a new plan at this point could set us back some in terms of timeline and getting before the board. (Home rule board) One thing to keep in mind is that after we’re accepted into home rule, the plan can be amended at any time.”

To read more about Shepherdstown’s proposed home rule plan, copies can be obtained at town hall during regular business hours.

The next town council meeting will be held on March 8 at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall.