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Town status studies due

Friday, August 23, 2013

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Martinsville officials expect to receive in the next few days studies intended to help them decide whether the city should consider becoming a town to save money.

Information in the studies will be made public after officials analyze it and figure out the best way to present it, said City Manager Leon Towarnicki.

“We will make every effort to move through the information expeditiously,”

he said.

One study will reveal the impact “reversion” would have on Martinsville and Henry County finances. The other will show how the city and county schools would be affected, according to City Attorney Eric Monday.

The city has examined reversion several times but hit stumbling blocks that resulted in the issue being shelved each time. Extremely tight city finances in recent years have prompted officials to re-examine the concept now.

If Martinsville were to revert, it would become a town in Henry County. That would save money, officials have said, because the county would take over certain city functions, such as constitutional offices and — perhaps — the schools.

Virginia cities are unique in that they are independent of surrounding counties. Towns are part of counties.

With fewer expenses, Martinsville as a town would not have to generate as much revenue, so it could reduce its tax rates. However, people living in the town would have to pay both town and county taxes since they legally would be residents of both.

The question, officials have said, is whether becoming a town would save Martinsville enough money to make the complex legal process worthwhile.

A study in 2006 revealed that the city could save about $3 million a year if it reverted, but controversy resulted in the study being shelved.

This time around, reversion studies are “not something we intend to put on a shelf” and never use, Towarnicki said.

Richmond attorney Carter Glass is spearheading the studies, and he is receiving help from various sources. He has a lot of experience in local government matters, an online biography shows.

One source of assistance is Robinson Farmer Cox Associates, a statewide accounting firm examining the financial aspects of reversion. The firm does the city’s annual financial audits.

Components of the studies will show the financial effects on the city at different points in the future, such as three years or five years from now, Towarnicki said.

Mayor Kim Adkins said she is anxiously awaiting the information.

“I really think it’s (the studies) going to give me more detailed information on financial forecasting” than she has seen before, she said.

Martinsville City Council ultimately will decide whether to pursue reversion. Adkins said financial projections in the studies will sway her opinion.

Right now, she said, “I’m not completely sold on reversion” although she thinks a merger of the city and county schools would prove beneficial.

After receiving the studies, city administrators will review them for a week or two to make sure they cover all of the city’s concerns, Towarnicki said.

Administrators then will discuss the findings with the city council in private, Towarnicki said. State law lets local governing boards go into closed sessions to discuss issues requiring legal advice.

At some point soon thereafter, officials will decide how to present the study results to the public, he said.

If the council decides Martinsville should pursue reversion, it would have to petition the state’s Local Government Commission, which then would hold hearings and issue findings of fact. If the findings are favorable, the city would file a reversion petition in Martinsville Circuit Court, Monday has said.

The state Supreme Court would appoint a three-judge panel to decide whether Martinsville can revert. The judges would be from outside Martinsville and Henry County to ensure fairness, according to Monday.

Last August, the council allocated up to $120,000 to pay for the studies. Monday has estimated that legal expenses for a reversion effort could amount to $600,000 or more, especially if the county fights it.

Earlier this summer, Bedford became the third Virginia city, behind South Boston and Clifton Forge, to revert to a town.

Towarnicki said city officials may study those reversions in detail as part of efforts to determine if Martinsville should revert.

 

 
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