Charleston user fee passage puts end to dispute

By John O'Brien | Jul 25, 2006

CHARLESTON - The numbers -- and outcome -- of Monday's court-ordered special vote on Charleston's user fee did not surprise South Charleston attorney Thornton Cooper.

"The majority of registered voters didn't vote and the great majority of those paying the fee were not allowed to vote," Cooper said Tuesday, one day after the user fee, which has had its legality disputed during its 2 ½-year existence, was upheld by special vote.

The $1-per-week-fee that is taken out of the paychecks of those who work in Charleston and funds police and road-paving programs passed by a 5,055-1,785 margin, almost nine months after the state Supreme Court declared its legality. However, it did not approve of the city's notice and publication plans, saying citizens did not have enough time to protest the fee when it took effect in 2004.

So the Supreme Court ordered a special referendum, which was to be held during the May primaries. The city says problems with new voting machines prevented that from happening.

Cooper had challenged the fee in Kanawha Circuit Court originally, but Judge James Stucky sided with the city. That's when he appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Cooper has said all along that the fee, modeled after a similar one in Huntington, is a "foot in the door."

"They can charge somebody walking on the street and working there because they get so much police protection," Cooper said. "OK, why not, by the same logic, can they charge people who work in Charleston because they use the toilets there to pay for the sewers. There's no end to this thing.

"Instead of tightening the budget or having a fee on households like we do in South Charleston, they impose this fee and make it politically popular.

"Now that the Supreme Court upheld it, I don't see why they can't use it for any other services."

He adds that he wanted the Supreme Court to establish a criteria for programs that can be funded by a user fee, but he says it just looked at the low $1-per-week cost.

"They looked at it and said, 'OK, that's not that much,'" said Cooper, who warns that the fees in Huntington and Weirton have already been increased.

The Charleston user fee results in an extra $2.8 million for the city's budget. The amount it had already collected would have been in dispute if the vote had turned out differently. Cooper said he would have had to deal with the issue of starting a lawsuit to claim refunds.

He also complains that the vote was not open to several thousand people who pay it, those who work in Charleston but live elsewhere. He calls it "taxation without representation."

"My feeling is that there are a certain set of powers that allow people to have control over their elected representatives," he said. "Elected representatives can't mess with the lives of people who can't vote them out."

The other side counters with examples of improvements it says the fee has provided, such as more than 20 extra police officers to patrol the city and several newly paved roads.

But Cooper said that could have been achieved with the previous budget and that a dangerous precedent has been set.

If the fee is ever increased, he says he will go before the City Council to argue it. But for now, it looks like three years of work have ended with little progress.

"I at least stood up and tried to stop the expansion of the power of cities," he said.

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