Charleston West Virginia Economic Development

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Article below appearing in The Charleston Daily Mail, June 9, 2009

Mayor touts metro concept

by Cara Bailey
Daily Mail staff

The mayor of one city that has successfully transitioned to a system of metro government urged Kanawha County leaders to prepare for hesitation from their constituents over the idea. "It's a revolutionary thought to merge city and county governments," said Jerry Abramson, who has been mayor of Louisville for 20 years. "It doesn't come naturally to people. Change is not comfortable."

Abramson gave a presentation Wednesday morning at Geary Auditorium at the University of Charleston. About 175 people, including mayors from around the county, city council members and city and county employees, attended to hear him talk about the challenges and merits of metro government.

The Louisville-Jefferson area adopted metro government in 2000, after the fourth attempt to get voters to approve the idea. Between 2000 and 2003, seminars were conducted throughout the community so that people there might understand more about the concept, and it took effect in 2003.

Kanawha County is nowhere near that point yet.

Legislation was passed several years ago that would even allow counties and towns to experiment with merging government agencies and services. Just this spring, lawmakers reduced the number of votes - down to a 50 percent majority - necessary for the proposal to pass at Kanawha County's polls.

Now, officials are trying to find ways to get the word out to residents about what metro government might involve.

Several people at Wednesday's session said officials already have gone about it the wrong way.

Rand resident Mary Robinson, who is retired from BrickStreet Mutual Insurance, said that if leaders had really wanted many people to come to Wednesday's meeting they would have scheduled it later in the day when fewer people were at work (the session started at 9 a.m.).

"I came for the people in the area who couldn't take off work," Robinson said. "As far as we're concerned, no one came to us. Do we count? That's how we feel most of the time."

Abramson said six years after his area transitioned to metro government, questions still are being asked. But he said the government continues to strive to be transparent.

Abramson serves as "metro mayor" and works with 26 metro council members elected from various municipalities in the area.

Suburban cities continue to exist with their own governments, councils and tax systems, but each also has a member on the metro council.

During the change, about 7,000 positions in city and county governments were eliminated, Abramson said. He said most of those positions were vacant due to a hiring freeze that took place after metro government was approved. He said 70 people were laid off, but most were hired back.

Though the city of Louisville is a primary example used by officials in the Kanawha Valley, Abramson said metro government does not work exactly the same way in every area.

"The reality in local government and business is, there's no reason to reinvent the wheel," Abramson said. "You look at other communities and tailor the best application for you in terms of consolidating governments."

One benefit Abramson pointed out is that metro government makes it easier for new businesses and jobs to come into the area. Instead of having to go through a set of rules, permits and processes for the county and then a respective municipality, one body manages everything in the area.

"You speak with one voice," he said. "You have the same licensing, same permits, same requirements."

Abramson said the possibility of such cohesion is an important idea for residents to consider as they're trying to decide whether to accept metro government.

He said people must realize that they live in a community, not just their respective suburb, to make metro government a success.

"We are one community," is the mindset people need to have, he said. "We have more that draws us together than separates us."

Abramson flew in to Charleston Tuesday afternoon, when there was an invitation-only reception in his honor at the Clay Center.

Wednesday morning, he was joined for a question-and-answer session by Kanawha County Commissioners Kent Carper, Dave Hardy and Hoppy Shores, as well as Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, Charleston City Councilman Marc Weintraub, who heads the city's metro government committee, and Charleston Area Alliance Chairman Jack Rossi.

Below is a brief excerpt from that session. A full set of questions and answers can be found online at

• How will metro government effect the taxes paid by county residents, especially Business and Occupation taxes, which are currently not paid by those in the county?

Sen. Brooke McCabe: "The legislation allows everything to stay the same in the city and other area, by law. There are some fearful of metro government using the opportunity to expand taxes. That cannot happen. At the same time, the parallel is the taxes paid in principle cities, the dollars stay there and are used for those services. There are three levels: Charleston, municipalities and the county. All three are unchanged."

How much money will be saved by merging?

Commission President Kent Carper: "If you're going to do it to save a buck, don't do it. The real goal is to accommodate the community. Metro government creates a one-stop shop for economic development. However, it's common sense: if you consolidate and merge, there's savings."
• Will Charleston's user fee go countywide?

Councilman Marc Weintraub: "We don't actually know for certain what is going to happen, because we don't have a charter. But it's highly unlikely that the user fee will go outside the city limits, and go away inside city limits."

The population of the Kanawha-Charleston metro area could have a population of 190,000. Are there companies that have passed setting up in the area because of the current population?

Charleston Area Alliance Chairman Jack Rossi: "Yes. Many times we don't even know it. We are informed but don't know who these companies are."

• Why is Louisville being used as a model?

Carper: "Our staff is looking at every part of the country. We're going to steal from the best."

• If South Charleston, which has openly opposed metro government, joins, will it keep its identity and budget?

Commissioner Dave Hardy: "South Charleston will have the benefit of its own budget, but also a seat on the metro council that speaks with one voice for the whole area."

Why should eastern Kanawha County residents agree to another government and more empty promises?

McCabe: "Metro government would put together a metro council that would pull in communities such as Chelyan, Marmet, Pratt and Clendenin. Those towns will be at the table."

How did the Jefferson-Louisville area deal with the separate ordinances?

Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson: "The new government had five years to re-pass any laws that were appropriate. If it was not passed it would sunset. In those five years, the law that was more strict would apply until the council made the decision on which law to follow."

How did you get citizens involved?

Abramson: "We went wherever two people would gather, and talked about the future of government. We spent a lot of time answering questions and building trust. We knew council members would be representing every nook and cranny of the county, and that person would be the decision maker. A lot of misinformation and disinformation will come out. The facts have to be out there. And you have got to want to do it. If you want to do it, it'll get done."
Contact writer Cara Bailey at or 304-348-4834.


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