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Town status studies OK'd
By city council
Wednesday, August 15, 2012
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
City officials on Tuesday took a major step forward in determining whether Martinsville should pursue reverting to a town as a money-saving measure.
Martinsville City Council unanimously voted to authorize Interim City Manager Leon Towarnicki to hire firms to conduct three relevant studies. It appropriated as much as $120,000 to pay for the studies.
Those actions came after a public comment session in which area residents spoke for and against studying reversion.
The studies will include analyses of the city’s future financial expectations, the effects that reversion would have on both Martinsville and Henry County and the effects that merging school systems would have on the community.
These studies must be done before reversion can be seriously considered and a petition for reversion can be filed with the state’s Commission on Local Government and the court, according to City Attorney Eric Monday.
Councilman Gene Teague emphasized that by having the studies done, the council is not committing to reversion. Rather, he said, it is gathering facts “so all of us (council members) can make an informed decision.”
Martinsville has studied reversion several times but faced stumbling blocks that caused the issue to be shelved each time. City officials revived the idea recently in light of tight finances in recent years.
“The outlook doesn’t look any better,” Teague said.
Despite previous looks at reversion, “we’ve never really had a fully studied, fully analyzed process” to consider whether to pursue it, Monday said.
Virginia is the only state in which all cities are independent of surrounding or adjoining counties. Towns, which like cities are incorporated as municipalities, legally are part of counties.
Although Virginia law allows reversions, the only two cities that have reverted to towns are South Boston and Clifton Forge. The city of Bedford is in the process of reverting to a town in Bedford County.
Under a reversion, Henry County would take over certain services — such as courts and, probably, schools — that Martinsville now provides for residents.
The idea is that by having to provide fewer services, Martinsville would save money and not need to collect as much revenue. As a result, residents would not have to pay as much in taxes to Martinsville, but they would start paying taxes to Henry County, too, since Martinsville would be part of the county.
Monday said the bottom line for residents probably is “what is the effect on your tax bill?”
Jim Clark, a candidate for a council seat in the Nov. 6 election, said Clifton Forge residents pay a town real estate tax rate of 21 cents and a rate of 64 cents to Allegheny County, both per $100 of assessed property value. That is a total of 85 cents. In comparison, Martinsville’s current real estate rate is slightly less than $1.02 per $100 of assessed value.
If Martinsville residents’ total tax bill ends up being less than they now pay, “it would be beneficial,” Clark said.
Councilman Danny Turner asked whether Henry County could pay for studies showing the “exact opposite” of what Martinsville’s studies show if the county opposes a reversion effort.
Monday said the city cannot stop the county from doing its own studies, and while he would expect them to show the same information, “different experts can reach different conclusions” on what the information means.
However, he said he hopes the city and county could negotiate reversion issues in ways that are not adversarial.
Mike Seidle, who formerly represented the Reed Creek District on the Henry County Board of Supervisors and served as that board’s chairman, agreed.
“It’s a whole lot easier to buy a car when you have your wife with you,” Seidle told the council.
“The only winners in hard-fought litigation are lawyers,” Monday added.
Clark and Seidle both said they favor the city studying reversion.
Seidle suggested, though, that the two school systems try to work out a plan to merge, or at least combine certain services, before reversion talks proceed. He said schools have been “the hangup” in past talks.
“A little bit or a whole lot, they need to be tied together,” Seidle said.
“Schools are the most important thing of all,” said Clark.
Deborah Ann France of Martinsville and Regina Harris of Fieldale said they think Martinsville should not study reversion.
Martinsville’s motto is “A City Without Limits.” France said considering reversion is like “saying we have limits, we don’t believe in our own selves.”
She said the city should take the money it will spend on the studies and invest it instead in refurbishing vacant buildings so they attract new businesses.
“We used to have everything (that a person could want) here” in the city, Harris said. “We could do it again” if the city could attract new businesses.
Monday estimated the total cost of the studies will be about $120,000 based on estimates received from firms that did them for other places.
It should take about six months for the studies to be completed, Monday said. He added that the city legally can choose whoever it wants to do the studies — they are not covered by the Virginia Procurement Act, so no requests for proposals must be issued.
Also Tuesday, the city council:
• Appropriated a total of $56,315 into the current fiscal year’s budget for various projects, including purchases of supplies for the fire department and ongoing improvements to uptown.
The money comes from sources such as donations, grant reimbursements and the sale of assets that police confiscated from criminals.
• Presented a proclamation to Piedmont Community Services recognizing September as “National Recovery Month,” part of a nationwide effort to promote recovery from mental and substance abuse problems.
• Appointed Mary Wampler to the Blue Ridge Regional Library Board of Trustees and Tiffany Lawrie to the Martinsville Planning Commission.
The appointments came after a closed session held to discuss a personnel matter and possible appointments to boards and commissions.