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Council candidates weigh factors in city reversion
Monday, October 8, 2012
By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer
How much money can be saved will be a big factor in determining whether Martinsville should revert to a town, according to the four candidates running in the city council election Nov. 6.
Public opinion also will play a key role in the decision, candidates indicated.
Virginia law allows a city to revert to a town within a county. However, only two cities — South Boston and Clifton Forge — have reverted. The city of Bedford is in the process of reverting to a town in Bedford County.
If Martinsville reverts, it would become a town in Henry County. The county would take over certain services that the city provides, such as courts and — more than likely, local officials have said — schools.
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 pay taxes to Henry County, too, since Martinsville would be part of the county.
Martinsville has studied reversion several times but hit stumbling blocks each time that resulted in the studies being shelved.
City officials recently decided to re-examine the concept due to revenues declining in recent years as costs for providing services have risen. Due to population declines and other economic factors, they think the trend may continue well into the future.
The council appropriated up to $120,000 to pay for three studies that will include analyses of the city’s future financial expectations, effects that reversion would have on both the city and county and effects that merging the school systems would have on the overall community.
Councilman Mark Stroud said the council expects to receive study findings “around December.”
The four-year terms of whoever is elected to the city council Nov. 6 will start in January.
Stroud and the other three candidates were asked what the reversion studies will have to show in order for them to vote — if they are elected to council — in favor of the city pursuing reversion.
Their responses follow in alphabetical order of the candidates’ last names:
Sharon Brooks Hodge
Hodge said she does not know if findings of the studies now being done will be enough for her to cast a vote on whether reversion should be pursued.
She does not like the concept of reversion.
“I am fiscally a tightwad,” Hodge said, adding that she favors combining the city and county into one locality but not Martinsville becoming a town.
To save money, she said, “I’m in favor of moving forward with the county,” but she thinks “reversion is a step backward.”
She said she is not in favor of spending an estimated $600,000 or more on legal fees to force Henry County to take in Martinsville when it could result in bad relations between the county and the newly recognized town.
Hodge said she has heard county residents comment that they do not want the county to become responsible for the city’s debts.
“We need to figure out how to work with Henry County” in other capacities, she said.
Hodge posed the idea of the city and county merging into one municipality with one governing board, one school board, one set of local administrators and “one set of everything.”
Under that concept, rural and urban portions of the community would be treated equally, and the area that is now Martinsville “would not become a stepchild” to the rest of the community, she said.
Stroud said that for him to vote to pursue reversion, the reports must be “comprehensive and complete” and show it is “in Martinsville’s best interest” to become a town to remain sustainable as a municipality.
“The way our finances have been going for the past few years,” he said, “... how long can we keep going on” providing the same level of services while the population and revenues shrink.
Despite his concern about city finances, Stroud said there have been small increases in some revenue sources recently, so “I certainly think our hardest times are behind us.”
“I have no doubt it (Martinsville) will” remain a viable locality, the one-term incumbent councilman said.
However, in order for him to vote to pursue reversion, Stroud said he also must firmly believe most city and county residents favor it.
He does not see that right now. Most people with whom he has discussed the issue have said they dislike the idea of reversion, he said.
Yet most people he has heard from so far have been county residents, he added.
Turner, the other incumbent in the race, noted that in the four years he has been on the council, he has voted against every annual city budget.
That is because “we haven’t had a budget that we haven’t been spending more (money) than was coming in,” he said.
He said “my sense” is that “there is a substantial amount (of residents) in the county against it (reversion) compared to the city.”
Based on his experiences, Turner said “the overwhelming majority is not the vocal part” expressing their views on issues.
If most city residents oppose reversion, they must understand that services will have to be reduced if current financial trends continue, he said.
Also, “services can be done at a cheaper price” than they are now, he added.
Turner said he hopes the General Assembly, with help from area delegates and senators, will “sweeten the pot” and offer incentives for Martinsville to either revert or remain a city.
If the city eventually reverts, he said, “I would hope the General Assembly would come up with some goodies” such as rewarding the city for needing fewer — if any — constitutional officers.
Woods said the study results must show “reversion would not be an undue tax burden on residents of the town of Martinsville” because they also would have to pay county taxes.
“That’s a big thing to me” as a candidate, he said. “Maybe in negotiations” between the county and city officials could find ways to keep taxes low “for folks who have to foot the bill” for local government services.
He is optimistic that the study results will show Martinsville would benefit by reverting.
“Conclusively,” Woods said, reversion is “going to be a win-win for the city and county” alike.
He said Martinsville has world-class schools, “exceptional” people and a strong tax base “in some precincts” that would benefit the county.
“My gut tells me it’s a foregone conclusion that it’s (reversion) going to have to be sooner than later,” he said.
He mentioned he has heard similar comments from local business people.
Ultimately, reversion “may be a long time coming ... but it’s going to be a positive move” for both localities, Woods said.