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County supervisors hesitant to chime in

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Although most members of the Henry County Board of Supervisors had not had time to examine in-depth a new study prepared on city reversion, several raised questions Tuesday about what the process might mean for county residents.

Martinsville City Council on Monday received a study on the prospective financial impact of Martinsville’s reversion from an independent city to a town in Henry County. An updated study on consolidating the two localities’ school systems — long a divisive issue in the area — and a report forecasting the city’s financial picture also were presented.

The council has not made any decisions on whether to pursue reversion. It plans to hear public comment on the issue at two upcoming meetings.

To Ridgeway District Supervisor H.G. Vaughn, the issue comes down to a bottom line: reverting would be the city’s decision, and there is little county officials could do to stop it.

“The only way it will ever happen is if (a majority of council members) make a flat decision to revert to town status,” Vaughn said. “Then, it will be forced. Really, the county has no say as to whether the city reverts. That decision is up to the city officials, and can be made by three of them (on the five-member council).”

The idea of reversion is not new, according to Vaughn, who first was elected supervisor 18 years ago.

“It wasn’t long after that before the issue of merging the government came up,” he said. “My most recent experience was in 2007” during discussions of merging the school divisions.

Like others before it, that discussion “ended up with a lot of differences of opinion. It just amounted to spending a lot of time with no meeting of the minds because emotions start flaring as people start looking at things that might divide their turf,” Vaughn said.

“I think trying to negotiate how it’s going to be done upfront would end up in a turf war just as it has in the past, because human emotions come into play and are not always in the spirit of cooperation,” he said. Such discussions are “not a pretty thing, unfortunately, and end up dividing the county and city.”

Attempting to negotiate how a merger of city and county schools would look also would be futile, because new school board members would be elected to represent both areas on a merged board. “It would then be that new school board’s responsibility of how to operate the system, the monies needed and how the funds would be spent,” Vaughn said.

If city council does vote to revert, the issue would go to the state’s Local Government Commission and later to a three-judge panel that would make the final decision, Vaughn noted.

“The message I would send to county residents is ‘Stay calm.’ Let’s wait and see what the city decides,” he said. “The ideal situation for all of us would be if the economy turned around. We are in a situation now where we are fighting to keep our local governments going and doing what we can to boost economic development. The last thing we need right now is a community fighting over a thing that hasn’t even taken place.”

Other supervisors said more time is needed to review the study.

“There is a lot of information and a lot of details,” said Blackberry District Supervisor Jim Adams, the board’s chairman. “I really don’t know how to comment on something I haven’t gone through yet.”

Parts of the study he had read “had to do more, it seemed like, with the school merger study and the phases of that. There are a number of pages dedicated to that subject, and I really have not gone through them,” Adams said.

“Some unknowns were mentioned in that summary,” he said. For instance, Adams said he does not know if the county has adequate space for the constitutional offices it would absorb through reversion. Also, “county residents obviously would be interested in what the financial impact would be.”

Vice Chairman Tommy Slaughter said that while he had not had an opportunity to review the study, he feels “pretty sure” the city will revert because “they have to,” particularly where schools are concerned.

“They’ve got to cut down on expenses, and the school is the biggest expense. If they had that (expense) off of them, they probably would be” able to financially negotiate the remainder of expenses, Slaughter said.

His “philosophy to anything is you can talk it out better than you can fight it out. I always tried to negotiate and talk,” Slaughter said. In most situations, discussions can help solve issues, “but I don’t know in this situation. There’s so much bad taste or distrust; I don’t really know what it is between the city and the county. I think a lot of it developed years ago when the city was basically tied down to where they couldn’t annex or anything, and that basically has put them in the spot they are in right now,” he said.

Collinsville District Supervisor Joe Bryant said he also will review the study and discuss it with other board members. But he expressed some concern.

“Whenever you pay to have a study done, in general whoever is paying for the study is going to have it come out their way. ... You want the best scenario to come out of it,” he said, and added the county might do its own study.

Horsepasture District Supervisor Debra Buchanan said she also had not had a chance to read the entire study, but like Vaughn, she is well aware of the number of times in the past that the issue has been discussed.

The idea of city reversion last was studied in 2006, but that study was shelved due to controversy.

“I also want to reread the old merger and reversion studies and I want to compare what information was provided then and what is provided in the new study,” Buchanan said.

She said she takes issue with the amount of tax rate increase projected in the study for county residents: 3.2 cents.

“I think it would be higher,” she said. “Certainly when a reversion takes place and the city becomes a town, then it’s going to be up to the county to see where there are losses or where there are gains, and whether the county decides to do their own study again or rely on old ones. It will be up to the board of supervisors.”

Like Bryant, Buchanan said the results of any study “usually will lean in favor of the person that contracted to have it done. From what I read in the paper, the information provided in the study was the best case scenario.”

Iriswood District Supervisor Milton Kendall said he needs “more time to look at the study and get some more input on it. I have some questions already that I want to ask — mainly about the school debt (incurred by the city to renovate Martinsville High School). I don’t know exactly who would take care of that” if the schools merged.

And so far, Kendall said, he had not found that information in the study. “I just need time to read it,” he said.


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