Majority of speakers push back against reversion
By Callie Hietala and Debbie Hall
After two days of testimony from city and county officials, residents had an opportunity Wednesday to weigh in on Martinsville’s effort to revert to a town status – and the message was clear: Delay or stop reversion entirely.
The Commission on Local Government (CLG) set aside four hours for public input during its series of hearings in Martinsville. A few of the more than 20 speakers supported reversion, but the majority said public input was left out of the process.
Martinsville Schools Superintendent Zeb Talley said his monthly meetings with city officials pre-dated reversion. He said he asked about reversion during those meetings and was told about the June 2022 deadline. When he asked if he needed to be involved in the process, Talley testified he was told to “just move forward” with the school division because city staff were working on the reversion.
He also testified to monthly meetings with Henry County School Superintendent Sandy Strayer, and he noted that county school staff had access to all areas of city school facilities, contrary to testimony otherwise.
Donna Dillard, chairman of the Martinsville School Board, said that while the council had invited the school board to an August 21 meeting, “the meeting did not actually occur because of the school board’s commitment to transparency” and the city’s bid to meet in closed session. Otherwise, “our school board has not authorized or been involved in” the process.
Dillard asked the commission to extend the effective date of reversion in hopes the school divisions could work together and craft the best plan for education going forward.
Pastor Calvin Perry also encouraged the commission to recommend the city and county “take a step back, breathe.” He suggested each locality hold town halls to inform and educate residents, solicit input, and appoint boards/commissions of school administrators, teachers and students “to study the future of our students.”
The process hitherto “has been shrouded in secrecy. It has not been transparent” and residents have not “been educated on how it will affect them,” Perry said.
The Rev. Tyler Millner echoed many of Perry’s sentiments and encouraged the commission to “protect our interests. Protect our interests. We’ve been given bad leadership.”
“This entire process has been done without any input from citizens,” former county school board member Mary Martin said. Although city officials and their legal representatives testified there was ample opportunity for public involvement, “I would challenge them to tell me when and where. We were closed down for a year due to the pandemic.”
Martin encouraged the commission to “just say no” to the reversion effort or at least not have it take effect until July 2024.
The CLG began the reversion proceedings on Tuesday, Sept 7, and heard testimony on the history of Martinsville and Henry County, population, demographics, tax rates and financial statistics.
Day one proceedings began with opening statements from attorneys on behalf of both city and county before devoting the rest of the day to hearing testimony.
Stephen Piepgrass of Troutman Pepper, attorney for Martinsville in the proceedings, said the city would be presenting evidence that answered two questions, “Why revert, and why revert now?”
“Demographics is destiny,” Piepgrass said, adding that that phrase is true when it comes to reversion. He cited an aging and declining population leading to a shrinking tax base, putting the city in an ever-worsening financial situation. “The status quo simply is not sustainable.”
Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson testified that, over the last several years, the city has drastically reduced its budget, cut back on staffing “to the point we can’t cut back anymore,” and is now treading water. She cited a recent study that showed that Martinsville’s fiscal stress is the third highest in the Commonwealth.
City Manager Leon Towarnicki agreed, adding that the city often must look hard before filling positions within the city that become vacant, and often must delay requests from services such as EMS due to tight budgetary restrictions. The city might, for example, receive a request from the police department for four new police cars, but the budget only allows the city to buy two, with a plan to buy two more the following year. By the time next year comes around, Towarnicki said, rather than asking for the two the department didn’t get last year, now they need five or six.
Piepgrass said that Henry County faces some of the same problems as Martinsville, including a declining tax base. “In our view, reversion will reduce fiscal issues and thereby achieve a sustainable future. The commission will agree that the time for reversion is now.
“This started out as an adversarial process,” Piepgrass said, referencing tensions between city and county as reversion began to move forward. However, “the result (of negotiations) is agreement instead of conflict.”
From the first day’s testimony, it was clear that the one point of conflict still existed between city and county, – the issue of the actual date of reversion.
Piepgrass stated in his opening remarks that the city wants a reversion date of July 1, 2022, which is less than a year away. That begins the next fiscal year and, he said, will allow time for schools to adjust as well.
Henry County Administrator Tim Hall testified that was too soon.
“We have one chance to get this right,” Hall said. “The sheer size of this process is larger than any other the Commonwealth has ever seen.” He added that the county prefers a 2023 or 2024 date.
Jeremy Carroll, of the firm Guynn Waddell Carroll & Lockaby, is representing Henry County in the reversion proceedings. He said that this is the “largest and most complicated reversion in the history of Virginia” as well as the “most comprehensive reversion in the history of Virginia.” He noted that other cities in the state that have reverted had already partially consolidated some systems such as schools and courts. Martinsville and Henry County have each, up to this point, operated all those systems independently.
The county noted that several studies are needed to ensure the reversion process goes smoothly. The Voluntary Settlement Agreement, signed by both City Council and Henry County Board of Supervisors, makes a provision for a study of the school systems to be done. A study also is needed on office facilities, Hall said, to ensure that administrative officials have adequate office space to perform their duties. He added that the city’s requested reversion date is “absolutely not” sufficient time for a study to be properly completed and implemented.
“You won’t know what your needs are until you conduct your studies,” Hall said. “Those studies take some time to perform.” Even then, once a study is evaluated and the county’s needs identified, a budget has to be approved which will allow officials to meet those needs.
“If we have one chance to get it right, let’s take the time to get it right. I think the worst thing that we can do is to rush into something of this magnitude and this commitment if we’re not 100 percent sure that the path we are on is the appropriate path. And if that takes a little longer than perhaps the city wants, I think that’s a price that needs to be considered when you consider the holistic approach here.”
Time was a factor that attorneys for both sides returned to several times within the day’s testimony. Lawson testified that the current proceedings trace back to 2018 when the council invited representatives from other localities who have been through the reversion process to speak at meetings about their experiences—things that worked, things that didn’t, and how they thought the process could have been handled better.
“We began this journey in 2018. We believe that that is a four-year period. It starts with the next fiscal year, and that would avoid any disruption in the school system. Implementing reversion on that date will allow the town and the county to benefit from reversion sooner and waiting another year would just prolong the same situation and problems that we currently have that reversion is intended to address.”
Hall said the county did not begin planning for reversion at that point and did not consider beginning to budget for the process because there was no real indication that the process was going to move forward until the city filed the paperwork.
There was discussion of this in 1982, there was discussion of this in 2012. “At what point would the county be expected to jump in and start working? If we’d jumped in at 1982, that’s a lot of money we spent and nothing’s happening. If we jumped into it in 2012 with the understanding of the preparation that this was imminent, we’d still be waiting. We think we have done what’s in the best interest of the county taxpayer,” Hall said. “Once the city filed, we knew that it was on. It was time to get to work.”
The commission will accept written testimony that is submitted or postmarked by September 17. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to the Commission on Local Government Department of Housing and Community Development Main Street Centre 600 East Main Street, Suite 300 Richmond, VA 23219.
(For updates, visit www.henrycountyenterprise.com and upcoming print editions.)