By Brandon Martin
Martinsville City Council approved their 2020 Legislative Agenda during a Dec. 10 meeting at the Municipal Building.
The agenda outlines a list of priorities voted upon by the city council for legislators at the Virginia General Assembly and United States Congress to undertake in the upcoming year.
First of items proposed to the General Assembly is an upgrade to portions of U.S. 220 overlaying I-73 to interstate standards. The City of Martinsville also looks to make improvements to the U.S. 58 section between Stuart and Hillsville. Overall the city council looks to increase funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation for road construction and repaving.
“It’s a primary north/south transportation link and when you look at what has been in Carolina where they are basically updating 220 to interstate standards up until the state line,” explained City Manager Leon Towarnicki. “If that can be continued through the Martinsville-Henry County area and up north, then that’s going to have a significant impact in terms of economic development just due to the development that normally occurs along an interstate route. Extending it from north to south is critical to this area in terms of transportation and ability to move product and goods.”
Another of the items on the legislative agenda is a section that allows for local authority to make decisions on where to make cuts regarding education. The city also looks to support the New College Institute by minimizing funding reductions to the college and propping up all partnership initiatives with other institutions of higher learning.
“You have people that may have initially gone and gotten a two-year degree and have settled down and found jobs, started families and careers,” Towarnicki said. “They don’t want to leave the area but yet, moving from a two-year to a four-year degree could be critical in their advancement within whatever company they may work with. For us to continue to promote and support New College is critical because it lifts up the whole educational element of our community.”
The city also looks to increase current levels of financial support for Patrick Henry Community College and to request that the state provide incentives for consolidation of school systems. The latter may affect talks of reversion which would include consolidating county and city school systems.
Under economic development, Council hopes to enhance the authority granted to localities to address and eliminate blighted properties. The move also seeks to form interstate compacts which allows for expedited recourse against out-of-state property owners. Virginia Museum of Natural History is also slated to receive an increase in funding.
Martinsville seeks to increase state and federal financial assistance for localities that have exceeded the average state unemployment rate by 150 percent over a period of five consecutive years. In a related move, the city looks to expand grants and resources that encourage the development of small entrepreneurial businesses and expand the amount of grocery stores where none currently exist.
“Statistically, I think if you look locally, small business is where jobs are created and it’s where a tax base is created,” Towarnicki expressed. “We have a lot of businesses in our community that are small, in terms of 2, 3, 4,or 5 employees. When you start factoring in 10, 20, 30 or 40 businesses and each one of them is employing that amount of employees, that’s significant. That’s substantial. It also creates a tremendous web of diversity in terms of the types of shops and specialty shops that better enable a community to ride through downturns in the economy.”
Council seeks to oppose efforts by Henry County PSA to reopen the Lower Smith River Wastewater Treatment Plant without a regional study concluding that the move is in the best interest of the city and county residents. This legislative priority has also been a point of contention between the city and surrounding county in reversion talks.
The city also seeks to pass a few other items which could relate to recent reversion talks such as the adoption of recommendations by the Virginia Commission on Local Government in its 2018 Annexation Moratorium study. Council seeks to amend Code of Virginia 51.1-155.2 in order to allow constitutional offices, that are abolished in the process of reversion, to take early retirement free of penalty through the Virginia Retirement System. Another item on the list is the proposition to preserve local authority intact to regulate zoning, land use and regulation of the installation of wireless communication equipment. They also seeks to require the state to fund 100 percent of the per-diem costs related to housing state inmates in local jails, a reason brought up by the city during their Nov. 19 council meeting.
“If the city reverts and the constitutional functions combine, there could be situations where the city combines with the county and due to economies of scale, all those positions might not be eliminated,” Towarnicki explained. “If the city does go through with reversion and the constitutional offices combine and then due to economies of scale, it may be necessary to eliminate positions. What we are trying to do with that is just have something to protect the employees that have been in those offices for 10 or 20 years but aren’t quite at retirement yet are afforded some type of protection.”
City Council requested many items from the United States Congress as well. Some items were repeats of requests made to the General Assembly such as funding for upgrades to roadways and economic development in blighted areas. The city did add in a proposal to oppose any effort to impose additional taxation or regulation of electrical power generated by coal or natural gas.
Finally, the city is requesting Congress fund certain items that would help the citizens directly. Chiefly among them is a request to provide special federal incentives to fund education and workforce retraining programs. This would apply to regions that have experienced losses in excess of five percent of the total workforce and decline in median incomes since the adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement, World Trade Agreement and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. Extending of high speed broadband service throughout southern Virginia is also included in these items.