The budget discussions undertaken this week by the Martinsville City Council — and the budget for 2019-20 ultimately passed — continued to draw a conclusion that seems foregone:
The city is headed off a financial cliff, and reversion seems the only branch left to grasp.
How and when this long-discussed merger of city and county governments might take place is the greater unknown. Mayor Kathy Lawson has said the city should “thoroughly investigate reversion.” She, and others, cite the unsustainable financial forecast faced by the city, and if there were drums beating on reversion's horizon, you would hear a more urgent thumping.
This is what the budget process showed us once again: If money can’t be borrowed from savings, then there is no balance in a given fiscal year. And even that balance is precarious, akin to standing on a house of cards while wearing greased shoes.
The city council budgeted $94,619,054 for the coming year, with about 20% of that earmarked for schools. Setting aside utilities — which should pay for themselves — the city has to "live off" $32,129,019.
But it doesn’t have that much coming in. Once again, City Manager Leon Towarnicki had to go to the bank and withdraw — they saw borrow, but does anyone expect a payback? — nearly $1.4 million just to find some sense of balance. We haven’t added up all the times he has done this in the past few years, but the loss of net savings — yes, dollars are budgeted to be deposited in that account — could build a few schools.
But there is no opportunity to build anything — that idea of the new high school gym will require more smoke and mirrors than a 1980s disco — because Martinsville has problems with job growth, income equity and its ability to serve its roughly 13,000 residents with the basic amenities they expect.
Council members want to provide nice things, but they also don’t want to raise taxes and fees. Departments also are required in the budget to spend less than they are allotted on paper. That calculus no longer works.
There is insufficient and unlikely growth in the core of the region. The evolution of Commonwealth Crossing as a manufacturing — and thus jobs — hub will draw away those who might once have lived within the city limits, and when some future generation benefits from the Interstate 73/U.S. 220 plan, the whole idea of city living likely will be bypassed more than it already has been.
This is not to trash Martinsville. This is a lovely and historic town that lost its purchase in the fabric, furniture and farming failures on the past quarter century. But you can’t replace a financial foundation with stacks of borrowed bricks.
Reversion would make life much simpler for everyone involved. The concept of requiring separate schools systems in a county of this size is a throwback concept, and having two law enforcement and judicial systems is wasteful.
There is opportunity for an efficiency that could allow the entire county to look forward to doing things better and not simply at patching, plugging and working around.
But that’s what the city council has been forced to do for a decade at least, to pay for today with money it won’t have tomorrow. It’s not smart, and it’s definitely not sustainable. Every decision, number and idea proves that point over and over.
Said Towarnicki: “For a community of our size, there are many duplicated services that could likely be handled more effectively and efficiently."
Yes. And it’s time they were.