MARTINSVILLE – City Councilman Gene Teague said Tuesday he thinks that to save money, the city will need to take another look at reverting to town status.
Under a reversion, Martinsville, an independent city, would legally become part of surrounding Henry County. The county then would become responsible for providing certain services – such as courts, constitutional offices and, perhaps, schools – to Martinsville, enabling the city to reduce its expenses.
City officials have examined reversion several times in recent years yet never pursued it.
But “financially,” Teague told others on the council, “I think we’re going to be at the point where we’ll need to have those discussions again next year.”
He did not elaborate, and there was no discussion of city financial matters.
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Teague made his remark during a discussion of comments prepared by City Manager Leon Towarnicki and City Attorney Eric Monday concerning Virginia cities’ inability to expand their boundaries. Basically, the more land in a city, the more property tax revenue that it receives.
Cities statewide have been prohibited from annexing areas in adjacent counties since the 1970s. In exchange, they get an annual lump sum of funding for their law-enforcement agencies.
Towns can pursue annexations.
This year, the General Assembly extended the annexation moratorium on cities until 2024.
However, the state’s Commission on Local Government was directed to examine annexation issues and prepare a report to present to lawmakers by the end of 2018. The report is to evaluate how the annexation ban has affected localities and look at possible alternatives to the ban, among other things, according to a state website.
Councilwoman Sharon Brooks Hodge said she understands that the commission aims to complete the report by the end of next year.
The local government commission’s Annexation Study Stakeholder Group is taking written comments from localities about annexation issues through the end of the month. Towarnicki’s and Monday’s comments will be submitted to the group.
Towarnicki read the comments to council members for their endorsement.
The moratorium was designed to stop bickering between cities and counties over efforts by localities to expand their territories, but it was intended to be a temporary until Virginia’s local government structure could be reformed, according to Towarnicki.
That has not happened, and the annexation ban has “locked local governments in the 1980s,” Towarnicki said, although they have since undergone changes in population and other demographics, along with economic changes such as losses of tax-paying industries.
There are several independent cities in other states, but Virginia is the only state in which all of its localities that legally are cities are independent of surrounding counties.
“Virginia should adopt comprehensive reform in its system of local government and conform to the structure of the rest of America,” Towarnicki said, reading from the comments.
By not being able to annex, cities are landlocked and, as their industrial bases have been depleted and changes in technology have occurred, “many cities are experiencing financial stress” as costs for providing services rise and there is little or no growth in revenues to cover the increased costs, he said.
“Cities are forced to continually raise taxes and fees, or cut services, or examine reversion scenarios to survive,” he continued.
In revamping the local government structure, Towarnicki said, the state should consider how matters such as education and economic development affect localities and quit “playing shell games with taxpayers’ money.”
Council members indicated they agree with the comments.
Hodge said, though, she thinks a statement communicating “a sense of urgency” should be added to them to try and get the state “to move expeditiously” to repeal the annexation moratorium.
Teague said he thinks the comments should propose potential solutions to the annexation issue. One that he mentioned is the state also allowing “dependent cities” – ones that are part of counties – to exist.
“That’s what the rest of the country is using,” he said.
Towarnicki said Hodge’s and Teague’s thoughts will be incorporated into the comments submitted to the local government commission’s study group.
Still, Teague predicted that the state ultimately will decide to continue the moratorium.
So if the council ever decides that Martinsville should pursue an annexation, the city probably will have to revert, and “that’s going to be a … lengthy, expensive process for us,” he said.
Also Tuesday, the council proclaimed October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month in Martinsville.
The resolution states that one out of three American women will experience domestic violence at some point in her life, and children from violent homes are more likely to engage in violent criminal activity in the future than their non-abused peers. It also notes that such violence occurs across all socioeconomic and racial boundaries.
Warren Rogers, executive director of the Southside Survivor Response Center (formerly Citizens Against Family Violence), accepted the proclamation, which also mentions special activities that will occur in October to help make people aware of the domestic violence problem.
Among them will be “Survivors’ Voices,” a panel discussion to be held Oct. 27 among victims who survived violent situations.
Mickey Powell reports for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Mickey Powell reports for the martinsvillebulletin.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org