Lines in the dust
Are antiquated government boundaries limiting regional progress?
Former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, an acknowledged student of Virginia’s history, recently offered a sobering assessment of the state’s local government structure and where it might be heading unless changes are made.
“Today, our local governments are experiencing some earth-shaking tremors. Some people now wonder whether there is a San Andreas Fault in our local governments’ near future,” Baliles said at the annual meeting of the Virginia Bar Association in mid-January in Williamsburg.
The San Andreas Fault is an earthquake-producing formation that runs for 750 miles through California, producing often-devastating shocks.
The “tremors” that Baliles referred to include financial stress recently experienced by cities such as Petersburg, Bristol, Martinsville and Buena Vista, as well as rural counties in Southern and Southwest Virginia.
In addition, he observed that several Virginia urban areas, while experiencing explosive growth, are finding they have inadequate revenues to match the needs and expectations of their residents.
Baliles took a lead role in a panel discussion sponsored by the bar association focusing on Virginia’s local government structure and the fault lines that are appearing with increased regularity.
“We are prisoners of our history to some extent,” Baliles said, in trying to get at the root of the recent problems.
In Virginia’s earliest days and for many years afterward, local government rested in the formation of counties whose boundaries were created by a simple rule.
“The courthouse had to be within a day’s ride on horseback within any point in the county,” Baliles said.
County boundaries drawn in the 18th and 19th centuries still exist, but along the way Virginia gave birth to a rare form of local government, 38 independent cities that are not part of counties.
Baliles said that Virginia’s counties and the independent cities operate different systems of government, often with different laws.
“Today, cities and counties are adjacent to each other providing the same level of services, and many cannot tell whether they’re in a city or a county and may not care,” the former governor said.
When regional problems arise — such as opioid addiction, transportation snarls or the pursuit of an equitable system of public education — the boundaries create barriers to possible solutions.
“If we have regional problems, we’ve got to have a regional approach. That requires us to consider boundary changes, which is a hard-rock political problem,” Baliles said.
He said that the governmental structure in Virginia is inefficient and out of date. “The current structure is costing us money and lost opportunities. We should have fixed this a long time ago, but we did not,” Baliles said.
One panel member, James D. Campbell, former executive director of the Virginia Association of Counties, said the recommendations from various groups studying regional cooperation often have lost their momentum when funding disappeared from the General Assembly.
He noted that annexation of parts of counties by various cities had caused frustrations leading to “temporary” moratoriums on annexation. The most recent moratorium on city annexations is in effect through 2024.
Baliles noted that annexation was once received favorably by cities and counties but over time had become an anathema politically. “It poisoned the well … of any semblance of regional cooperation between neighboring counties and cities,” he said.
Campbell said that a business-led economic initiative — GO Virginia — is the most recent effort to encourage regional cooperation.
The program describes itself as an effort “to restore Virginia’s position of economic leadership by growing and diversifying the state’s economy.”
R. Michael Amyx, retired executive director of the Virginia Municipal League, says the program tries to match job skills by regions, where economic development opportunities may differ.
Amyx said the first round of projects approved in December included a digital shipbuilding workforce program for Tidewater that could eventually employ up to 8,500 workers, drawing from all parts of the state and beyond.
Robert C. Bobb, CEO of the Robert Bobb Group, a financial turnaround entity and management firm for local governments (including most recently Petersburg), warned that Virginia is losing some of its financial clout as more residents leave for other states.
Bobb said that Virginians are moving into states to the south — such as North Carolina and Georgia — in high numbers.
Research indicates that the exodus has been prompted by retirees and younger people looking for better employment opportunities. But most important, they are seeking a way to lower their overall cost of living.
“They are less expensive to reside in than in Virginia,” Bobb said, speaking of metropolitan areas such as Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C.