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Fredericksburg City Beat

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Pamela Gould reports on City Hall. You can reach her at 540-735-1972 or pgould@freelancestar.com. Robyn Sidersky reports on city schools. You can reach her at 540-374-5413 or rsidersky@freelancestar.com.

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City or town?

A few weeks ago, during the City Council’s work session at the Circuit Courthouse with Judge Gordon Willis, a few council members made comments about the possibility of Fredericksburg’s changing to town status if it couldn’t keep up with the costs of being a small independent city.

Councilman Fred Howe III brought it up as he talked about the city’s limited ability to pay for the large list of capital projects it has in front of it.

“That may mean we have to move to a town status,” he said.

Councilwoman Kerry Devine then cautioned that she didn’t want anybody leaving the meeting thinking that the council was seriously thinking about becoming part of Spotsylvania County.

“That has not been a topic of council discussion, and not one I would be in favor of,” she said.

Then, a few minutes later, the mayor himself brought it up again.

“We don’t want to revert to town status,” Tom Tomzak said, after noting the large price tag on the project and the fact that the council is divided as to whether a new court facility is needed. He went on to say, “We’re going to have to have the debate: Do we want to bear that burden as an independent city, or do we want to revert to town status?”

Now, let’s be clear, this is not a topic that anyone on the City Council has taken any serious steps to investigate or pursue.

It is an idea that typically comes up when discussions about really expensive capital projects like this get heated. But in my nine years of covering city government in Virginia, it is a line of thought that I have seen repeatedly when city officials start lamenting the many burdens that are placed on them by state mandates and the inequalities in state funding formulas, especially for schools.

What does it look like when a city waves the white flag and decides to revert to town status within a county?

We’re probably going to get to see in March.

Bedford, a city of 6,350 between Lynchburg and Roanoke, is in the process of reverting to town status. Bedford became an independent city in the middle of Bedford County in 1968.

A story in Sunday’s Roanoke Times looked at other fairly recent city reversions, including those of the former cities of South Boston and Clifton Forge.

A story in Sunday’s News & Advance looked more at residents’ attitudes toward the idea of losing city identity.

A few points worth noting:

  • It’s a money thing. From the N&A story:

Now, more than 40 years later, finances are a catalyst behind reversion talks. Officials have said reversion could better position the city by “streamlining” services shared with the county. As a town, officials could petition to adjust boundary lines to take in more land. The state prohibits annexation for cities.

  • The idea of city/county cooperation for schools, courts, utilities, etc., has come up a lot. Bedford already has some of this in place (don’t forget, it started life as a town within Bedford County). From the N&A story:

The city reimburses the county for a number of shared services, including education of city students through the county’s public school system.

  • There is at least some thought that more of this could happen in other parts of the state. From the Roanoke story:

Many local government officials believe other cities — landlocked and facing revenue and funding drops and fierce economic development competition — might pursue reversion in the years ahead.

George Nester, Halifax County administrator, is one such official. His broad experience in local government includes a stint in Bedford County in community development.

“Cities in Virginia have pretty much been left to die on the vine,” Nester said. “More cities will have to look at reverting.”

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Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/citybeat/2011/01/31/city-or-town/

  • Matt Kelly

    The discussions on reverting to town status will not be a question of whether we like it or not. The question will be whether we can afford it or not. If we want to remain an independent city then we must start discussing NOW (as with the courts), the realities the city faces–limited economic growth opportunities, increasing costs for services while receiving less from state and federal sources, the financial demographic of the city, etc. We must then start making decisions to meet those challenges. Better planning and a pro-active approach to economic development as the city approaches build-out. Discussing city priorities, defining core services, understanding financial realities, to focus the city budget. Needs vs. wants. It is time to have these discussions.

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  • probably should keep my mouth shut

    The fact that this is even being discussed is a bit foolish in my opinion. Fredericksburg is a thriving city, with an outstanding economic situation both now and moving forward. The City needs to take a hard look at its residential tax rate, which at 55 cents is extremely low, and about 30% lower than Stafford and Spotsy when comparing taxes on houses of equal value. We are generally an affluent city with citizens who, fortunately, have the financial capability to absorb additional minor rax increases in order to provide a good courts complex, as well as other needed services in the City. Unfortunately, we usually have local politicians running the show who are more interested in keeping tax rates low (because they make good headlines to get them re-elected) rather than making the right decisions for the community. Not saying this is the case here, as the City’s politicians have performed better recently than their County counterparts…but if the City needs $ there is really no good reason not to look at a minor/modest tax increase.

  • John

    The funny part that most people probably dont know is that Fredericksburg was once part of Spotsylvania Co. and was actually the county seat.

  • Al Simms

    Many years ago I lived in the town of Boydton, VA. We paid taxes and other fees to both the town and the county which nearly doubled the tax burden if you lived within the town limits as I did. This facet was conveniently not mentioned but definetly needs discussion. I certainly would not want to pay taxes to Fbg and Spotsy and that is also VERY unfair since services would be similar.

    Another thing is Identity for tourism purposes. Anyone who operates a business that relys on tourism could be hurt as Fredericksburg is the well known name.

  • Matt Kelly

    Fredericksburg has the lowest median income in the region. Well below Spotsy and Stafford, and a higher percentage of residents on fixed incomes. Over 60% of housing in the city is rental. When all taxes and fees are calculated we have one of the higher rates for a city in the state. I would agree that debating whether taxes are high or low makes no sense unless viewed in the context of the services provided, and community as a whole expects. But resident’s ability to pay is a factor. We also are facing declining revenues due to competition and an over reliance on retail. Due to our proximity to D.C. we are better off that a lot of communities however, calling the city affluent is a tad bit off the mark.

  • CityGuy

    I will sell my house and move before I EVER become a Spotsy County resident again. Taxes are high enough in the city, but expect to pay even more as a county resident.

    Real estate tax in the City is $.68/$100 and in the County .$.86/100. So a $200,000 house would cost you $1360/yr in the City and $1720 in the County.

    And be prepared to pay almost DOUBLE for the privilege of owning a car in the County. $3.40/$100 City and $6.26 in the County. So a $10k car will cost you $626 in the Country vs. only $340 in the city.

  • CityGuy

    Oh yeah, I forgot: If the City becomes a Town, Fredericksburg residents who get swallowed up by the county would enjoy the benefits of double taxation. You pay your taxes to the County first, then the “Town” gets to tax you again.

  • Matt Kelly

    CityGuy–Points well taken. A few fun facts on the realities the city faces. The city is paying almost 25% of the regional jail budget and capital costs–roughly $4 million a year. Just to support cost of living for employees, city and school, will require increases in the tax rate. Thus the need to do a better job with economic development, determining priorities, gauging the community on the service needs, and focusing on them. I agree that government fails when it becomes a burden of the people it is suppose to support. But complaining about taxes doesn’t get us anywhere. The question is how does the city position itself, as it approaches build-out, to insure necessary services without becoming a burden on its residents?

  • SpotsyGuy

    Of course, its also likely that Spotsylvania would not be the least bit interested in Fredericksburg reverting to the county. Afterall, as Kelly points out, its econimic outlook isn’t all that rosey, and the increase in urban voters in the county would not be welcome by most residents.

    Then, maybe there is a good side – if F’burg became part of the county again, we could forego the Spotsy VRE station since the F’burg station would now be in the county! I know that wouldn’t work, but it’d be nice.

    The real problem is that cities in general are on their way out. They’re just not needed anymore, and, in many cases are crowded, poorly run, run down, and running out of money.

    Maybe Walmart would be interested in the site . . .

  • Sillyyouare1957

    I really don’t think that Spotsylvania County wants any part of the City of Fredericksburg or its problems. The city residents elected to live there, so raise the taxes high enough to pay for the cost of living there, new courts, new fire house, etc.

  • LarryG

    The boundaries are as much historical artifacts than anything else to a certain degree.

    And we do have redundant facilities, services and administrative overhead….

    And most important – The City and the County have, for decades jousted over who was going to get the lions share of the sales tax from Commercial and the result is a lot of semi-dead shopping centers and businesses asking for subsidies and incentives from both the city and the county – playing them off against each other – to no one’s real benefit.

    The city is also getting whacked on subsidized housing as well as the SOQ funding ..

    The issue, if not mistaken, can be brought to referenda with sufficient signatures.

  • Booger

    What we need is more rental housing, That way we will have the manpower to staff our upcoming development life preservers: Kalahari Water Park with its plethora of lucrative spin off businesses like Sam’s Value Souvenirs and Maude’s roadside ice cream and pretzel stand. After the incentives awarded to these businesses expire we will begin collecting a tax revenue stream that will be truly mind boggling, and in 30 or 40 years allow us to make a generous downpayment on a very small courthouse.

  • SpotsyGuy

    If it reverted, perhaps the best thing to do would be to also revert the town boundaries to the Historical District and maximize its historical valus in a Williamsburg fashion. That would eliminate, or significantly reduce, much of the services redundancy since all services would be completely absorbed by the county. It would also reduce the number of folks subject to both county and town taxes.

  • Steve T.

    Who says we want the City back? Why can’t we just have the borders remain the way they are for a while?

  • SpotsyGuy

    Steve T., do you really think the city would want to revert if they could make it ecomomically? Nah, they’d want the rest of Spotsy to subsidize their inefficiencies and lifestyle – just like they wanted Spotsy help to pay for VRE.

    All I’m saying is that, if they must come back (because they’re going under), then it needs to be on Spotsy’s terms – not the F’burgers.

  • LarryG

    What if the choice was more annexation or reversion?

  • Doc

    Who says that the citizens of Spotsylvania would even consider allowing this to even be considered as an option just to afford the city to not pay for their new court house? How about letting any of the other surrounding counties step up for this one. Maybe Caroline would like it they loved the Pear Festival!

  • Matt Kelly

    I believe most city residents would like to remain an independent city. To do that is going to take more than words. There needs to be some community discussion to define priorities, levels, of service, some planning, and being a bit more pro-active on the economic development front.

  • SpotsyGuy

    LarryG, annexation can be very expensive for the city, and may well not be successful – just look at Richmond’s sundry attempts over the years, with very mixed results – even inspiring a State moratorium on annexations for a while. Were the city to go that route, they’re likely to – at the least – generate a lot of county hatred – and may find they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, ending up in even worse shape than they are now.

    If they insist, then the county should push for a Williamsburg-like solution since, in doing so, the city is admitting it’s no longer a viable economic entity.

  • LarryG

    The State does allow two localities to share revenues…. right?

    The question is – what would be in it for the County?

    is it all downside and no upside?

  • http://cruisetip.tpkeller.com TPKeller

    Someone remind me again why the city can’t send a big bill to each of the surrounding jurisdictions for their proper portion of a new Circuit Court facility?

    The Fredericksburg Circuit Court serves the City of Fredericksburg, as well as Caroline, Essex, Hanover, King George, Lancaster, Northumberland, Richmond, Spotsylvania, Stafford and Westmoreland Counties!

    Take a look at this map… how is it even remotely fair to make one very small city pay for a facility to serve this huge region?

    http://webdev.courts.state.va.us/maps/circuit15.html

    According to 2006 US Census data, this region’s total population is 469,768, of which only 21,273 are citizens of Fredericksburg.

    How can only 4.5% of the residents possibly be expected to pay for the whole region’s Circuit Court facility?

  • http://cruisetip.tpkeller.com TPKeller

    Perhaps I don’t clearly understand the role of the Circuit Court and neighboring jurisdictions…. perhaps someone who does understand it better could explain it?

  • Jason

    I say lets declare independence and form an army of minimum wage drones to annex as much of Spotsylvania as needed to make us economically viable. Field Marshal and former Yo-Yo champ Matt von Kelly will command the blitzkrieg attack. Our secret weapon? High pressure water guns supplied by Kalahari Resorts – truly our own military/industry complex. But wait! Do I hear the wails of defeat?! Say it isn’t so Herr Kelly! The tocsin of war will ring no more ‘or Fredericksburg rooftops and Kalahari’s verdant waters flow no more. Wall Street bankers have pulled the plug on mighty Kalahari and Fredricksburg’s future lies prostrate on the weedy remains of the Slavery Museum.

  • Kim

    For TPKeller: While Fredericksburg Circuit Court is a member of the 15th Judical Circuit of Virginia, it is by no means the only court for the circuit. Each of the localities that you mentioned have their own Circuit Court. The Fredericksburg Circuit Court house the Fredericksburg General District Court and the Fredericksburg Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court. These courts serve the citizens of Fredericksburg, the businesses incorporated in the city (such as Mary Washington Hospital), and those persons that may run afoul of the law in the city (speeding, lawsuits, judgments, etc.). They do not generally serve as courts for surrounding localities. So, if I speed in Spotsy, I will go to court in Spotsy General District Court (part of the Spotsylvania Circuit Court, which is part of the 15th Judicial Circuit of Virginia). Likewise, if I speed in the city limits, I will go to court in Fredericksburg General District Court (part of the Fredericksburg Circuit Court, which is part of the 15th Judicial Circuit of Virginia). Same judicial circuit, different localities and courthouses.

  • Rufus

    I live in the City, and I think this is a great idea, and we need to do this. Please do!

  • http://UmqaoU GIVEMEABREAK2M

    TPKeller the reason the city can’t charge those localities for the use of the Circuit Court is because those localities don’t use the Fredericksburg Circuit Court. The Fredericksburg Circuit Court only hears cases that are the result of activity that happened within Fredericksburg. Those other jurisdictions have their own Circuit Court buildings.

  • http://cruisetip.tpkeller.com TPKeller

    Thanks for the explanations. I think I must have misunderstood an earlier op-ed piece that correlated the growth of the Circuit Court cases with the population growth of the entire region.

    I suppose it would be interesting to try to learn what the “per-capita” case load is for all these courts, to see if Fredericksburg is burdened with greater than its share of court cases, and if so, why.

  • LarryG

    @Kim – thank you. Is there any merit to the claim that Fredericksburg gets more than it’s share of cases by virtue of the fact that regional entities such as MWC do legal battle in Fredericksburg with whoever they wrangle with legally?

    Does Fredericksburg possibly have other Courts that only Fredericksburg has and the counties around all get served by?

    I’m trying to understand the claim that Fredericksburg functions as a regional court system – if each country also has Courts and I know that in Spotsy they are in the middle of building new courts buildings (I think).

  • Matt Kelly

    Moseley Report noted that the court caseloads in the city are being driven by regional growth. To say courts are handling cases from only their own respective jurisdictions is be a tad bit simplistic. There are a number of factors related to locations of cases.

  • TeeBoo

    Isn’t this always backwards? The people in the county (Spotsy and Stafford) refer to themselves as Fredericksburg (for example any hotel or car dealership in Massaponnox will say “of Fredericksburg”) and their mailing address has “Fredericksburg” in it), ….But really I wouldn’t want to go into the county because, honestly, I can’t spell Spotslyvania….too hard to spell.

  • LarryG

    You spell Spotsylvania LIKE Pennsylvania only with Spots.

    Matt Kelly – a usual you answers are more murky than enlightening.

    You made the claim. Back it up. Show how Fred gets more than it’s share…. or take it back… :-)

  • LarryG

    There is another option also. Spotsylvania could become a city either by itself or in combination with the city.

    he Senate is considering a series of bills that would allow Alleghany County and the city of Covington to merge into a new city called Allegheny Highlands.

    …… ” stemmed from a lawsuit by citizens of Allegheny County and Covington trying to force consolidation.”

    http://www2.starexponent.com/news/2011/jan/26/alleghany-county-may-merge-covington-ar-799212/

    most boundaries in Va are essentially artifacts of grants from the King of England and really in the context of modern settlement patterns – impediments to more efficient govt and services and actually pits the jurisdictions against each other in economic development – to the detriment of citizens who end up paying higher taxes and getting less in services because of the redundancy and duplicative administration and delivery mechanisms.

    The census tries for a middle ground by trying to aggregate whole govt entities into MSAs (and MPOs) but in some cases they don’t really “fit”.

    A good example is Stafford which for some purposes is actually considered part of NoVa and not part of the Fredericksburg Area.

  • Matt Kelly

    Larry–At build-out the city will be at about 29,000 people. That number of people will not generate the case load projections noted in the Moseley Report. Spotsy and Stafford are projected to almost double in population to 600,000. That is what is impacting the case load numbers as stated in the report. While I do support looking for regional solutions I’m not advocating the counties pony up. The fundamental question is whether a city with a limited tax base, population, and space, can afford to support a judicial system/complex which will be supporting a population 20+ times its size?

  • LarryG

    We still don’t have the answer here though. What is the City current and projected caseload and how does it compare to the countries.

    I’ve yet to see the case made here for the 20-times size.

    Have you looked at the numbers at the State Auditor site for judicial?

  • LarryG

    Here’s the State data:

    local per cap state ave

    spotsy 33.15 89.96
    stafford 34.08 92.50
    Fred 93.39 202.76

    HOWEVER – I will point out that other places like Lynchburg and Harrisonburg – similar city/county configurations … DO NOT show similarly higher costs:

    Harrisonburg 16.42 32.45
    Lynchburg 51.47 111.75

    and in all fairness, there are places that have Fredericksburg’s costs:

    Emporia 357.32 775.80
    Norton 101.37 220.09

    so clearly there are some big differences but the info I don’t have (that I’m sure is available) is things like caseloads and other metrics that would shed more light on the issue.

    So I’m now convinced of the cost difference but I’m not buying why just yet until I see some numbers.

  • intheknow

    Good gracious, don’t you folks know a bluff when you see one? If the City status goes away, so does the City Council, the Circuit Court seat (along with the General District, and JDR judges, clerks and staff), the City Sheriff’s Office gets folded into Spotsy’s, along with the schools and a host of other City agencies, You really think those folks are going to put themselves out of a job?

    It’s simply the hype to sell the tax increase as “Saving the City”.

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