YOU issue: Cities vs. counties

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YOU issue: Cities vs. counties

Here’s what readers wanted to know:

Why is Virginia the only state with multiple independent cities? The city/county split here seems to lead to more difficulties than not. —David Moltz

Why did Charlottesville become an independent city in the first place? What ridiculous conflicts and duplication of services have we had over the years? Why does it persist? What’s the future for the Charlottesville-Albemarle relationship?—Nathan Moore

The whys of independent cities appear to be a burning issue over at WTJU, from whence these two inquiries came—although GM Moore assures us he and Moltz were not in cahoots with the questions and that this is not an official WTJU inquiry.

Here’s what we know: Out of 41 independent cities nationwide, 38 are in Virginia. These cities got charters from the General Assembly and are not part of the surrounding counties—in our case, Albemarle.

In England around the time this country was founded, entities like the Dutch East India Company were created as corporations and given special powers. Former mayor Frank Buck says cities in the new Virginia colony, which was largely developed by the English, followed that model. Cities went to the legislature to ask for an act to incorporate as independent bodies, while counties were land grants and considered part of the state government, he says.

Cities had more power and could facilitate growth by annexing land, which did not make surrounding counties like Albemarle happy.

That became the genesis of the revenue-sharing agreement, the question we thought we would get from readers but didn’t. We’ll take this opportunity to explain anyway.

Charlottesville wanted to annex land on U.S. 29 north to the Rivanna River, east to Pantops, south to I-64, and west to Farmington, says former city manager Cole Hendrix. Not surprisingly, Albemarle was freaking out with the potential loss of land—and tax revenue—in its urban ring.

So City Council and the Board of Supervisors sat down to find an alternative, and revenue-sharing, in which Albemarle pays 10 cents of its property tax rate to Charlottesville every year, was the agreed-upon solution and was approved by the county voters in 1982.

Ironically, five years later in 1987, the General Assembly put a moratorium on annexation. But Albemarle was still stuck paying out millions to Charlottesville every year.

“Newcomers come into town and say, ‘This doesn’t make sense,’” says Hendrix. Nonetheless, Albemarle can’t get out of it unless the city and county merge, they mutually agree to cancel or alter the agreement, or the General Assembly decides to change the concept of independent cities and make them part of a county’s tax base.

Delegate Steve Landes added a budget amendment in 2017 that would have invalidated the agreement, but ended up withdrawing it because of unintended consequences to other localities. This year, he carried a bill that was signed into law and requires localities like Charlottesville to report how it spends the money, and for city and county to talk annually.

The revenue-sharing agreement led to a petition for Charlottesville to revert to town status in 1996 because of declining revenues. That would have allowed the city and county to combine duplicate government services like schools and police. “No one wanted to do that” as far as the schools, says Hendrix.

He points out the two jurisdictions do have joint agreements for services such as the airport, Rivanna Water and Sewer, and libraries.

Here’s another city/county divide factoid: “The original Grounds of the University of Virginia by fiat were in the county,” says Hendrix. When UVA began buying land in the city, it took that property off the tax rolls. “We had a gentleman’s agreement with the university,” he says: If the land was for educational purposes, it wasn’t taxed. If it was for non-educational purposes, for example, a football field, UVA paid taxes on it. 

Updated November 30 with Nathan Moore’s clarification that he and Moltz were not representing WTJU when they posed the questions about independent cities. 

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