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Armed with data, council seeks input

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

Regardless of what course the city pursues regarding the reversion study released Monday, most members of Martinsville City Council suggested standing pat was not a viable option.

City Manager Leon Towarnicki presented what he called the “high points” of the study by Robinson, Farmer, Cox Associates Certified Public Accounts to the board during Monday’s public meeting. He pointed out that while the city’s costs to provide services to the community continue to rise, “revenue does not,” he said.

“The city is continuing to spend more than it is taking in, which is not sustainable,” Towarnicki said during the meeting.

The fact that revenue does not match expenditure did not come as a shock to the council, but Vice Mayor Gene Teague said the study helped illustrate exactly how large the disparity could become.

“The reason we undertook the study was to make sure we knew what the future of the city was going to look like,” Teague said after Monday’s meeting. “Now, we’ve got some decisions to make.”

Reversion, Teague and other stressed, is only one option.

“I think it’s clear we can’t do what we’ve been doing,” he said. “The question is, if we can’t do what we’ve been doing, what are we going to do?”

Adjusting tax rates is one option, Teague said. Changing the structure of local government is another.

“We’ve got to figure out which one of those methods that we want to go down. We’ve got some hard data now to look at,” he said.

Council member Mark Stroud said he was “glad the citizens got to see there are other options” besides reversion. “That opens up a discourse that we can start to have about what exactly it is that the citizens want and what we need to do sustain our finances.”

Stroud admitted that “because of the predicament that a lot of our citizens find themselves in, it’s very hard to increase (tax) rates,” however.

Towarnicki said the study revealed that reversion and the absorption of some of the city’s functions by Henry County could save Martinsville taxpayers as much as 42 percent combined on their real estate and personal property taxes. However, council member Sharon Brooks Hodge pointed out, that savings would come at a cost.

“We need to look at what it means to have a lower tax rate — what are we giving up?” she asked.

One likely sticking point in the discussions between the city and county in the case of reversion would be school consolidation, Hodge said, and that could bring a variety of new challenges.

“In 2006, the county said if we reverted, they would close the city schools,” she said, so for the city to choose reversion “means we would be willing to bus city school students into the county.”

In the meeting, Hodge asked what the possible impact of reversion could be on voting districts, something Towarnicki said was not covered in the study. Hodge said later that issue would need to be hammered out.

“All the other jurisdictions that have reverted ... have had some sort of negotiations ahead of time. We have not — including the question I asked about voting districts ... particularly (for) African-American votes,” she said. “Those would be the things I would ask the public to look at before they ask us to give them a lower tax rate.”

Mayor Kim Adkins called the study a “thorough analysis of the situation,” especially the financial projections from possible school consolidation, and she said she hoped to examine all the data as well as hear the public’s concerns during the next two meetings.

Though the discussion should be involved, she said she hoped it would not be lengthy.

“I really think that it is in the best interest of the community that this isn’t a long, drawn-out process, because whenever you talk about school consolidation or a change in government of this magnitude, emotions run high,” she said.

Stroud echoed Adkins’ sentiments that public involvement was crucial.

“I can look at all the information, but I want to do what the citizens think. We have to have a serious dialogue about” exactly what citizens want to do, he added.

Regarding the study, Towarnicki said there were “a lot of assumptions, a lot of projections” in it. “The meeting today focused on making sure the council” had a solid understanding of the study, he added.

Towarnicki said despite Adkins’ concern, the debate could, in fact, be lengthy if reversion is seriously considered.

“The presentation tonight was 45 minutes on a subject you could spend hours on,” he added.

The council voted to place the issue on the docket for public comments during each of the next two meetings, Nov. 26 and Dec. 10.


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