By Callie Hietala
The first of Martinsville City Council’s community conversations about reversion became heated Wednesday.
Commissioner of Revenue Ruth Easley questioned city officials about what she said was a lack of information being conveyed to her and other constitutional officers about a path forward with consolidation of services.
Easley was the only speaker during the meeting, the first in a series of four, which the city is holding to allow residents to ask questions and discuss concerns about reversion.
Easley was one of only two members of the public to attend the meeting, which also was broadcast live on MGTV-21.
Council members Danny Turner, Tammy Pearson, Chad Martin, Vice Mayor Jennifer Bowles, Mayor Kathy Lawson, City Manager Leon Towarnicki, City Attorney and Assistant City Manager Eric Monday, Deputy Chief of Police Robert Fincher, and several members of the media also attended.
Monday spent a little more than an hour detailing the reversion timeline and process. He also restated the reasons the city chose to pursue reversion, various issues involved, a history of reversion in Virginia, services that would still be provided by the town of Martinsville, and the number of issues raised by residents.
Monday emphasized that, in terms of urban services, “nothing will change.” The future town will be required to provide services “at least at the same level that you get it now.”
Taxes will not double for town residents, he said.
“There will be two bills when this process is concluded. That doesn’t mean that your taxes are doubled, it just means you get two bills,” Monday said, adding that one of the reasons the city pursued reversion was because it did not want to further increase the tax burden on its residents.
County residents, however, will see an overall tax increase he said.
Monday emphasized that the future town would not push any of its debt onto the county. Martinsville will retain its debt upon reversion.
However, he pointed out that there has been “a significant amount of debt incurred by Henry County” in the last few years with the construction of Meadow View Elementary and the new jail. The debt, he said, is significantly more than the city’s current debt.
“Does any of that contribute to Henry County’s proposed tax increase for the coming year? Or, to be frank, is blaming it on you more convenient,” Monday asked. “Keep in mind, that the Henry County Administrator’s own total cost for reversion is $5 million. So, what is more likely to require a tax increase in Henry County? Is it the $5 million they have to spend accommodating reversion, or is it the at least $94 million that they have spent and are spending to build a new elementary school and a new jail?”
After Monday’s presentation, Easley, the only registered speaker, said that she had several questions about the vagueness of the Voluntary Settlement Agreement (VSA) as it relates to the transition timeline to consolidate offices with the county.
“There has been no discussion with my office or, to my knowledge, the Treasurer’s office, about how we are to do this,” she said. “We’re simply being told to do it.”
She said the transition would be incredibly time-consuming and would incur additional costs.
“I have repeatedly asked for information on how this will be handled and who will be doing it. I have provided you with information from our software providers about what will need to be done, but at no point before you did this Voluntary Settlement Agreement did you sit down and discuss what was going to be involved to get you through this process,” Easley said.
Martinsville and Henry County worked out the agreement “with no discussion with the people who actually are going to be forced to administer it (and) then usher our way out,” she said.
“When do we sit down and have this discussion about how we get from point A to point B,” she asked. “Because we can’t do this in three months.”
She said that software providers indicated it would take at least a year to transition the necessary city taxpayer files.
Easley also noted that she was not made aware of the city’s plans for her staff until she heard Towarnicki testify during the hearing before the Commission on Local Government “on what staff he might be keeping from my office. When I asked the finance director what was going to be the operational form going forward, she doesn’t know. So apparently you haven’t shared it with her either. How do we get there? Are we supposed to guess? Is somebody going to let us know?”
She said constitutional officers’ staff are wondering about their fate during reversion, “because there’s been no discussion.”
Lawson said a great deal of work remains to be done, and the details Easley questioned would be worked out.
Pearson said that some of the information from Easley “points out some of the flaws in the reversion process with not keeping everyone well-informed and not bringing subject matter experts (like Easley) to the table.”
She said she would like to have a roundtable of experts to discuss all of the details pertinent to consolidating offices “because we cannot wait until a month or two beforehand.”
“I don’t think anyone expects it to be a month or two beforehand,” Lawson told Pearson. “These details are being worked on by the city manager. He’s not sitting on his fingers doing nothing. He is working on details. The county hasn’t even voted (to adopt the VSA) yet. There is a lot that is being done.”
In response to Easley’s concerns, Turner said if the reversion process moves forward, Easley’s office will have more than a year to complete the necessary transfer.
“Depending on when you give us the go-ahead,” Easley replied. “Somebody has got to fund this process, and that’s what I’m trying to get you all to understand.”
“I think we understand that,” Lawson said. “It’s timing. You want an answer right now, and we can’t give you an answer right now.”
“I haven’t even been consulted to give you that information,” Easley said. “Had I not beat you over the head with a two-by-four on this, you wouldn’t have come to this. I came to you. You all did not come to me to find out what we needed to do. Neither governing body brought either constitutional officer to the table to discuss it, so shame on both of you.”
She said that she has been through several database or software transitions over the course of her career, each of which took about 18 months.
“It’s not going to be a flip of the switch. Unicorns are not going to float around and poop fairy dust to make it happen,” Easley said.
“No one here thinks it will,” said Lawson, cutting Easley off. “It’s going to be a very timely, a very detailed process that will be worked through, but it does take time.”
Bowles said there are still many unknowns in the reversion process. The county still must vote on whether to adopt the agreement. The three-judge panel has not yet been convened, and there is not yet an effective date for reversion. She suggested Easley’s concerns about office consolidation were “putting the cart before the horse.”
Bowles suggested that Easley meet informally with her counterpart in Henry County to help ease what she acknowledged would be a “difficult, difficult process.”
Easley said that, while she could speak to the county’s Commissioner of Revenue, “we can’t make the decisions. You all are the ones who hold the purse strings.”
Easley said that, without more complete information, she was not able to offer an accurate estimate of the time needed to transition. She added that the city should have had discussions with her and other constitutional officers much earlier in the process, “because it does impact the timeline that you were trying to set with the reversion date.” Initially, the city requested to revert on July 1, 2022, which Easley referred to as “crazy.”
Lawson ended further discussion.
“It is a negotiation,” she told Easley.
Noting that the meeting was 30 minutes longer than its advertised 60 minutes, Lawson said Easley brought up some good points and that details would be discussed with all constitutional officers.
The next community conversation will focus on schools. It is scheduled to be held on Tuesday, Dec. 7 at 6 p.m. in council chambers.
Anyone who wants to speak must register noon on Monday, Dec. 6 by emailing their name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org, calling (276) 403-5182, faxing (276) 403-5280, or mailing the City of Martinsville, attn: Karen Roberts, P.O. Drawer 1112, Martinsville, VA, 24114.