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Martinsville decides to stop being a city

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(© Tiko – stock.adobe.com)

The development of human settlements is usually progressive. In the beginning, you have one or two houses positioned close together, housing only a few families. Over time more houses are built, and a few amenities are added. That gives you a hamlet. If your hamlet gets a little larger, it becomes a village, and by now you should have a shopping centre, some restaurants, a few bars, and maybe a movie theatre.

Some villages prefer to stay as villages. Others like to get a little larger, at which point they become towns. Most settlements in the United States of America are towns, and they’re just fine with that. They have no interest in becoming cities. For some of the larger towns, though, becoming a city is a long-held aspiration. You can’t simply become a city by growing in size, though. A local government has to apply to the state if it wants to become a city and needs to present a compelling case. Becoming a city is usually a cause for celebration within a settlement once the status is granted, and cities remain cities forever. Martinsville, VA, has decided to buck that trend. It’s bored of being a city and wants to go back to being a town.

The “town versus city” debate has been going on in Martinsville for more than five decades. Most residents probably thought they’d never see an end to it in their lifetimes. The news that the idea has now not only been proposed but agreed is likely to take many people by surprise. However, current mayor Kathy Lawson is delighted that a memorandum of understanding has been signed. Following a meeting that took place on May 26th, she confirmed that a binding agreement has been sealed, and the process of the “reversion” of Martinsville to the status of a town within Henry County will begin in six months. Henry County doesn’t legally get a say in the matter but held a symbolic vote and came out 4-2 in favor. The next stage is to get the agreement in front of judges for inspection. That could take several months, which might push the six-month starting point back even further.

From an outsider’s perspective, the move is a surprising one. Martinsville is still growing and is likely to grow more in the years to come. It’s been earmarked as the probable location for a sportsbook to capitalize on the popularity of sports betting in the state, which would surely provide a new line of income and allow the city to expand further. Perhaps the city’s politicians aren’t confident that sports betting is a long term solution. Although the hobby is currently booming, there are indications that physical betting locations suffer when internet-based casinos  websites move in. As things stand, there is no law preventing casino websites from operating in Virginia. There’s also nothing stopping them from partnering with sports betting companies to create “all in one” websites. If a site like 777.com,  Playojo or other leading casinos on sistersite.co.uk got an outlet in Virginia, it could reduce the popularity of any in-person brick-and-mortar betting facilities. This is only likely to be a small consideration in the minds of the city’s leaders, but the consideration will be there nonetheless.

Even if the reversion process begins on schedule in six months time, the return of Martinsville as a town won’t happen overnight. The earliest date it could possibly happen by is understood to be July 1, 2022, which is the date city leaders are aiming for. Henry County wants a longer delay. Some of the country’s officials – most notably the two who voted against the move – believe that accepting Martinsville means increased administration costs and political complications and would like longer to work on those problems. They want Martinsville to hold off until July 1, 2023. The question of which of those dates is right for the parties involved is one that the judges will have to deal with, assuming that they grant Martinsville the right to revert in the first place. If they do, the city’s courts, schools, and constitutional offices will have to be combined and then submit to the authority of the county. Utilities will remain Martinsville’s own responsibility, as will all public safety measures and the maintenance of the local MINET broadband service.

Once the reversion has been agreed (again, assuming that happens), Martinsville will voluntarily agree to delay all future town annexation for ten years. Mayor Lawson is keen to assure concerned citizens (who won’t be citizens for much longer) that although they’ll be required to pay county tax as well as town tax in the future, the combined cost of both taxes will be lower than the single figure they’re currently paying. A brief analysis of the rate of county tax paid by comparable towns in Henry County suggests that isn’t possible without the (future) town government taking a significant hit when it comes to town tax, but that remains to be seen. A temporary discount might be worked into the agreement.

Those wondering why Martinsville wants to do this aren’t alone. The case for going back to town status has never been clear other than for a vague promise that it will save money. Critics aren’t convinced. They feel that if there was money to be saved by becoming a town rather than remaining as a city, America wouldn’t have so many cities. If there were financial savings to be made, though, it might explain why there’s some reluctance on Henry County’s end. Any savings made by becoming a town would presumably come at the county’s expense, and that’s unlikely to be something that county authorities relish the prospect of – especially when 2022 is an election year.

This story still has a little way to go yet. All the paperwork might have been signed and sealed at the city level, but the legal process has only just begun. There’s no need to go outside and take down all the signage that refers to Martinsville as a city just yet. That day might come sooner rather than later, though – and when it does, it’s likely to be as expensive an event as it is a sad one. Martinsville fought hard to become a city. Now it’s fought just as hard to give its city status up.

Story by Rob Barns


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