By Callie Hietala
A public hearing on reversion will be held on Tuesday, October 26, beginning at 7 p.m. in the Martinsville City Council chambers.
Both the city and county are required to hold one additional public hearing each to take input on the reversion process before the creation of a three-judge panel provides final adjudication of the issue.
The Henry County Board of Supervisors has not yet set a date for its hearing, though it will likely be held sometime in November, according to County Administrator Tim Hall.
He said the supervisors will hear from its attorney, Jeremy Carroll of Guynn, Waddell, Carroll & Lockaby, during the 3 p.m. portion of their regular meeting, which will also be held on Oct. 26 in the Summerlin Meeting Room of the Henry County Administration Building.
The Commission on Local Government (COLG) released its review of the Voluntary Settlement Agreement (VSA) and recommendations about reversion on October 15, including a proposed effective date for reversion of July 1, 2023. The city had asked to revert on July 1, 2022, while the county preferred July 1, 2024, or later.
In its report, the COLG found that Martinsville’s reversion and the existing VSA are both in the best interests of the city, county, and Virginia. The commission found that reversion would reduce the amount of fiscal stress on the city and provide long-term financial benefits to the county, which will ultimately help to offset any new monetary burdens the county will shoulder.
While the commission noted that reversion could lead to a higher fiscal stress score for the county, “this will likely be minimal, if realized at all.”
The report noted incentives enacted by the General Assembly to “encourage reversion of independent cities and to financially assist the counties affected by such actions,” including a Virginia law ensuring that “for a period of 15 years, the county will continue to receive at least as much funding from the Commonwealth as the existing city and the county together would have received.”
The commission also noted that the city and county plan to jointly request that a school-based incentive in which state assistance for a school division is calculated using the lowest composite index score of merging school divisions. That money “would be instrumental in easing the transition to the merged school division.”
In previous reversion cases considered by the CLG that included a moratorium on annexation, as the Martinsville-Henry County VSA does, the commission recommended that that moratorium be drastically reduced, if not eliminated.
In the case of Martinsville’s reversion, the CLG found that the 10-year moratorium, coupled with the proposed revenue sharing agreements in the VSA, is a “reasonable compromise.”
Outside of its findings on the VSA, the CLG also included several recommendations in its report that focused primarily on issues of equity which were “the most consistent topics that the commission heard during the public hearing and overall public comment period.”
Martinsville, the report noted, “is one of the most racially diverse areas in the region and hosts a primarily Black or African American population compared to the county.” The report noted comments the commission heard during the public hearing – that reversion would negatively impact Black students, community engagement, and “the impact on the city’s voting power” as it relates to representation on the board of supervisors and school board.
The agreement between the two localities provided for the redrawing of election districts to include at least one district drawn entirely within the boundaries of Martinsville, thus ensuring at least one representative from the former city on both the board of supervisors and school board. The CLG encouraged the localities to consider increasing the number of districts drawn within Martinsville to increase the city’s representation in local government.
Regarding the lack of public input conveyed to the commission, it recommended that both communities develop a plan to regularly engage the public “so that this process may unfold in the most transparent manner possible.” The group suggested the establishment of an appointed body of city and county residents to advise the localities on the reversion process.
The report noted that “the commission does not reach or suggest any conclusions about the legality of any of the terms of the VSA or the process that the two jurisdictions used to come to said agreement. Such findings of law would be beyond the powers of the commission,” which is charged with making findings of fact rather than law.
The commissioners also chose to include in its report a paragraph noting the “discord among certain factions of the city and county, including among local and ministerial officials,” and encouraged the communities to engage with cultural leaders to cultivate a spirit of unity. The report cautioned that “this hostility” would “spill over into the general sentiment of the public at large and runs the risk of poisoning the well in a community that, in the commission’s view, needs unity in the face of significant headwinds.”
“It is understandable that emotions may run high,” it continued, “and distrust may ensue through something as significant as reversion . . . but the commission would like to remind all parties of their primary duties to serve and lead the citizens and not their own self-interests.”
City officials released a statement following the ruling, which said, in part, that it looks forward “to continuing our dialogue with the county on how best to ensure a smooth transition to town status.”
Donna Dillard, chairman of the city’s school board, said the board’s “focus is always on the best interests of our students. It is also very important that the right process be followed. I am hopeful that this recommendation will give Martinsville City Public Schools a voice in the process and an active role in making educational decisions for the future of our students. We will continue to do everything that we can to ensure the continued success of our students and will remain available to coordinate a path forward with Henry County Public Schools.”
Monica Hatchett, director of communications for Henry County Public Schools, said, “we are encouraged that the CLG recognized the importance of deferring reversion until at least 2023 because of the work that will be involved in ensuring a smooth transition. We look forward to receiving more information following the panel’s final decision as we continue to support students as they learn and grow in our community.”
The county declined to issue a public comment until staff have had time to evaluate the final version of the commission’s report.
To read the CLG’s full report on the reversion issue, visit www.dhcd.virginia.gov/reversion-city-town-status.