Cooper hopeful Charleston user fee is voted down

By John O'Brien | Jul 18, 2006

CHARLESTON - Unable to vote on the issue, South Charleston attorney Thornton Cooper has done everything else he can to oppose Charleston's $1-per-week user fee.

CHARLESTON - Unable to vote on the issue, South Charleston attorney Thornton Cooper has done everything else he can to oppose Charleston's $1-per-week user fee.

On Monday, he's praying his message will have gotten across to the citizens of Charleston.

That's when a special vote will be held to determine the future of the user fee, which was implemented for the reason of providing the city with extra police officers and road maintenance.

Cooper, though, says that reason is only a public relations ploy and has dedicated much of his time to ending the tax.

"The fact is they had money there and they needed to find something politically acceptable that most people like, like street maintenance and law enforcement," said Cooper, a retired member of the Public Service Commission who recently had an unsuccessful run for the state Senate.

"What the city needs to do is exercise fiscal restraint."

Only Charleston residents can vote in Monday's referendum on the fee, even though individuals who live outside of Charleston but work in the city are taxed. Cooper calls it "taxation without representation," a rallying cry against the British that led to the American Revolution.

Cooper says the user fee collected $2.8 million last year for the city's budget, which is already more than $60 million. He says if the city would be more efficient with its original funding, then police officers and road maintenance would be available without a user fee.

The fee was implemented after watching how it saved the City of Huntington, though Cooper warns that it has now increased to $2 per week and there is talk that it could be changed to $3. He calls Charleston's current version "a foot in the door."

"This to me is just the first step in taking more money out of the pockets of the working people in West Virginia," he said. "And I think the majority of people in West Virginia already pay enough in the way of taxes."

That's why he originally filed a lawsuit against the city in Kanawha Circuit Court, though Judge James Stucky determined the fee to be fair in 2004.

Cooper appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled 4-1 in December to uphold Stucky's decision but to organize a special election because the City of Charleston did not follow the proper procedures for notification.

Though six months would pass before the primary elections, the city claims it could not attach the user fee vote to the primary ballot because of the problems it was having with new voting machines. Cooper is skeptical, claiming the city just wants a lower voter turnout.

That's because, he says, a low voter turnout means fewer citizens and more city employees will vote.

"My fear is that only 5 percent of the people come out and vote," Cooper said. "The more people that come out, the better chance there will be it will be defeated."

If defeated, Cooper's next step will be the issue of refunding the money collected via the user fee to the individuals who paid it.

Of course, that won't be necessary if people don't vote, Cooper warns.

"Other people will have to carve it out of their schedules," he said, comparing this vote to a primary or general election in which employees are usually given the day off. "The whole thing was structured to deflate voter turnout."

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