More on the Martinsville Reversion

Uptown Martinsville

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

Like Jim Sherlock, the decision of the city of Martinsville to revert to town status caught my interest.

There are several  clarifications, as well as context, needed in response to his post on this subject, which would be too long for a comment. Therefore, I have decided to use a separate article.

To begin with, Martinsville has not led the way in its decision to revert to a town. As noted by several commentators,  the City of South Boston, now the town of South Boston in Halifax County, was the first city to revert to town status. The reversion was effective in 1995. The city of Clifton Forge (Alleghany County) followed in 2001 and lastly, there was the city of Bedford (Bedford County) in 2013. All three former cities are now towns. Here is the list of reversions, along with the reports of the Commission on Local Government regarding these reversions.

For detailed analyses of the reversion process in Virginia and how it works, see here and here.

In the second place, the situation is not as dire for the county as Mr. Sherlock paints it. It is true that the school systems will be merged and the county will be responsible for some of the costs formerly borne by the city, such as social services. However, the county will be able to expand its tax base as a result of the reversion. Under Virginia’s independent city system, each county and city has exclusive taxing authority within its boundaries. But, a county can levy taxes, including real property taxes, in towns  within its boundaries. As a result of the reversion, citizens of Martinsville will be paying property taxes to both the county and town, rather than just to the city.

State law provides that, in the case of a reversion of a city to town status, state financial aid, including that for schools, shall not be reduced to the locality for a period of fifteen or twenty years, depending on the type of assistance. There is also language in the budget that, in the event of a consolidation of school systems resulting from a reversion of a city to town status, the Department of Education shall use whatever would have been the lower composite index of the two localities for the distribution of state basic aid to the county.

The context of this issue is the unique system of county-city separation in Virginia. For many years, as cities filled up and areas around the city needed city services, such as law enforcement, streets, water and sewer, etc., the city could annex county territory. As counties became more urbanized, particularly adjacent to cities, annexation of county territory could result in a significant loss of the county’s tax base. Furthermore, in some instances, racial issues were also a factor in the opposition to annexation.

This situation led to litigation and, often, lasting tension and bitterness. (Towns could also annex, but, because a town annexation did not affect a county’s tax base, they were not fought as fiercely.) The “annexation wars” culminated in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. There was a multi-year study by the General Assembly that proposed a compromise that was adopted by the General Assembly in 1979. As a result, the urban counties, such as Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William, Henrico, and Chesterfield were granted total immunity from annexation by adjoining cities. Paradoxically, the statutory language setting out the criteria for total immunity also fit Henry County, hardly an urban county. The fact that Del. A.L. Philpott, one of the most powerful legislators, lived in Henry County had a lot to do with the county getting total immunity.

In the mid-80’s, the legislature enacted a “temporary” moratorium on all city-initiated annexations. That moratorium was extended several times. The current extension expires in 2024.

Mr. Sherlock and the county claim that the city was holding all the cards. To the contrary, the county was holding the best cards. The city could not expand its tax base by enlarging its territory. The county, on the other hand, is much larger in size. The only card that the city had was to revert. This reversion is not a sudden decision; it has been discussed for several years.

By law, the Commission on Local Government must review any agreement between a county and city regarding reversion to town status. After reviewing the agreement in light of statutory criteria for reversion, the Commission will make its recommendations to the court handling the case. This was the procedure used in the Clifton Forge and Bedford reversions.

My Soapbox

It makes a lot of sense for these small cities to revert to town status. For the most part, they do not have the tax base to continue providing the services, especially if they are losing population. From what I can tell, the reversion of South Boston has gone well. I have not heard of any problems with the other two reversions.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


41 responses to “More on the Martinsville Reversion”

  1. dick dyas Avatar
    dick dyas

    Hmm, why not have Charlottesville revert to a town status, and let Albemarle County clean up their mess. ( Fat chance, I know.)

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    Thanks Mr. Dick. I learned a lot. Could it be time for the General Assembly to lift the moratorium for towns to become cities? A scenario could involve the Town of Herndon in Fairfax. Once tiny, it is now the largest town in Fairfax and has a population of 24,000. It is growing. It will grow more when Metro operates the Silver Line all the way to Herndon, Dulles, and Ashburn. It is also home to a number of big time companies. It seems that Herndon might prosper more as a city than as a vassal of Fairfax County.

    There is a definite downside to living in a town. Paying the property tax twice and getting stuck with costly projects that I don’t care about or use. We have a 23 million dollar swimming hole in Warrenton. We should have spent that money on schools. I don’t think that swimming hole has made a buck yet in 15 years. Besides we had free swimming holes all up and down the Rappahannock River.

    1. vicnicholls Avatar

      That swimming pool just hasnt’ been marketed right. It is actually a draw for swim meets.

    2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      The current moratorium includes the granting of new city charters. The General Assembly could override this provision and grant a city charter to Herndon, but I doubt if it would do so if Fairfax County objected. Although I am no longer as close to this issue as I once was, my sense is that the legislature would prefer to stay as far away from the annexation issue as it can. All is quiet under the status quo and that is how they would like to keep it.

      Herndon has certainly grown. When I was working on these issues in the ’80s, the town was basically a hamlet in the far western, rural area of Fairfax County. Although it is now the largest town in Fairfax, Vienna, at 16,000+ is not far behind. Even so, Herndon is not the largest town in the state. The largest is also in your stomping ground. Leesburg’s estimated 2019 population was almost 54,000. The town has been active in annexing county territory. In fact, some businesses and individual property owners have sought to be annexed by the town.

      The other Virginia towns larger than, or about the size of, Herndon are Blacksburg (44,233) and Christiansburg (22,473), both in Montgomery County and influenced by Virginia Tech.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        A broader and interesting question might be how did Herndon get it’s gains? Did it have some organic advantages or did the county policies favor that area over other areas in the county?

        Seem like some things, like taxes would be the same so the idea that lower taxes would attract more development is not in play.

        So what are the factors that result in a place like Herndon growing and other places in the county, not?

        1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          One phrase: Dulles Airport. Other places are also growing.

  3. CJBova Avatar

    The percentage of Henry County households below the poverty line is 18.1%. In Martinsville, it’s 23.9%. Statewide, the average is 10.6%.
    Henry County unemployment is 6.8% Martinsville’s is 10.2%.

    Henry County’s real estate tax rate is 55.5 cents/$100. Martinsville’s is $1.0621/$100. Double taxes for Martinsville?

    So I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the impact of the social services cost.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      The residents of the town will have to pay both town and county taxes, upon reversion. The town tax rate will undoubtedly be lower than the current city tax rate.

  4. James C. Sherlock Avatar
    James C. Sherlock

    Dick, thanks for the history lesson.

    But you are just wrong about the county holding the best cards. You have to convince the residents of Henry County, not me. Every member of the Board of Supervisors opposed the reversion. They tried to get legislation to prevent it, but failed.

    You also indicate that the county will raise taxes in the town. They will, but they won’t increase the total tax burden on the town. Blood and turnips. Raising rates will result in lower revenue. The city never would have reverted under those conditions. It is hemorrhaging population as it is. The county residents will pay more, and they know it.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      I suspect that the opposition of the Board of Supervisors was rooted primarily in two historical/cultural factors–racial and the traditional suspicion/distaste of county folks for city folks.

      It is not that the county will raise taxes in the town. The county will be taxing property that it could not tax before, for example, Sovah Health.

      1. James C. Sherlock Avatar
        James C. Sherlock

        Henry County people’s biggest issue with Martinsville is that it was for a decade the opioid dispensing capitol of North America.

        Joel Smithers, a Martinsville-based doctor, was found guilty of 861 federal drug charges at the conclusion of a nine-day jury trial in U.S. District Court in Abingdon in 2019.

        Smithers opened an office in Martinsville in August 2015, and prescribed controlled substances to every patient in his practice, resulting in over 500,000 Schedule II controlled substances being distributed. The drugs involved included oxymorphone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, and fentanyl. A majority of those receiving prescriptions from Smithers traveled hundreds of miles, one-way, to receive the drugs. Smithers did not accept insurance and took in over $700,000 in cash and credit card payments prior to a search warrant being executed at his office on March 7, 2017.

        He wasn’t the only one. Dr. Vincent Jones was the sole owner of the doctor’s office in Martinsville and in 2017 he became the subject of a DEA investigation. He committed suicide.

        There are very few primary care providers left in Martinsville.

  5. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    ” As a result of the reversion, citizens of Martinsville will be paying property taxes to both the county and town, rather than just to the city.”

    Can I assume the combined rates will exceed what the city would/could have charged?

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      The tax rate in the town of Martinsville, when the reversion is effective, will be lower than it is now in the city of Martinsville. It is not possible to predict now whether the combined rates will exceed the current city rate.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        Even if Martinsville reverts , it STILL will have a separate tax authority?

        1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
          Dick Hall-Sizemore

          As I mentioned in other places, towns tax real property. For example, my family still owns property in Halifax County. Some of that property is solely in the county; some is in the town of Halifax. For the parcels in the town, I get two tax bills: one from the county and one from the town. My daughter lives in Fairfax County, close to the Vienna town boundary. She gets one tax bill from Fairfax County. Those residents a few blocks over get a bill from the county, but also one from the town.

          Generally, the town tax rates are significantly lower than the county tax rates.

      2. energyNOW_Fan Avatar

        Let’s use Herndon as a “town” example. How do town+county taxes there compare to say Burke/Springfield which just pay county taxes?

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          There’s a wealth of comparative Virginia jurisdiction tax and spend info here:

          Someone good with spreadsheets could extract per capita tax and cost info for Martinsville and Henry.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Thanks Dick!

    re: ” ” As a result of the reversion, citizens of Martinsville will be paying property taxes to both the county and town, rather than just to the city.”

    this confused me. If Bedford ceases to be a city don’t those taxes go away?

    In terms of winners and losers – Wasn’t it the higher-tax-value, commercially-zoned land the “prize” that was wanted?

    Used to be cities in Virginia had some Va Code advantages over counties on things like taxation, no?

    Finally, I’ve never quite understood the FUNCTIONAL difference between Virginia’s independent city and county dynamic and most other states which also have cities and counties but the cities are almost always part of the county. In those cases, are both entities levying taxes and the cities providing additional urban services – like sidewalks, water-sewer, etc?

    Good subject for discussion… lots to learn and understand. thanks.

    1. Paul Sweet Avatar
      Paul Sweet

      We own a lot in Bedford, and we pay property taxes to both the county and town.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        What additional services over and above what the county provides is the town providing?

        1. Paul Sweet Avatar
          Paul Sweet

          The town has its own police, fire, parks, and public works depts. and provides trash service. The town also runs its own electric distribution system. I believe the library systems are combined, as well as schools, water and sewer.

    2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      One issue at a time:
      1. A town can levy its own taxes on property, in addition to the tax levied by the county. The theory is that the town provides services not available to county residents. The primary such services are law enforcement, streets, and solid waste disposal. So, when South Boston, Clifton Forge, and Bedford became towns, their taxes did not go away, but the tax rates decreased.

      2. In annexation case, yes, the commercial and industrial zoned land is the prize. In a reversion, the issues are different.

      3. Cities used to have taxing authority that counties did not. Under legislation passed by the 2020 General Assembly, that is no longer the case.

      4. The local government relationships vary greatly from state to state. It is difficult to make comparisons. That being said, generally speaking, the service responsibilities are divided between the levels of government. As the lawyer who was my supervisor in Legislative Services used to say: It used to be simple in Virginia. Cities provided municipal services and counties provided rural services. Then, the General Assembly complicated it by giving counties municipal powers.

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    The related issue worth further discussion is how jurisdictions in Virginia can cooperate regionally to consolidate services and reduce redundant administrative overhead.

    Williamburg-James City County, for instance operated a single school system. Are there others?

    In the Fredericksburg region, they share water/sewer, library, regional jails, and some other.

    But as far as I know, no jurisdictions in Virginia operate regional public safety, fire, rescue and police services.

    SOME Regional things are mandated by the state, like Planning Districts and by the Feds MPOs.

    Not too many folks really understand how these things work and I always find discussions led by folks who know, to be informative and useful.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      The independent city system has been the biggest impediment to regional cooperation in Virginia. It is essentially a win/lose situation. Other factors have been racial tensions/suspicions and local pride in local autonomy. The state Constitution allows for the establishment of regional governments and there have been some attempts in the past, but none have gained traction.

      Regional cooperation is improving, however. I see it in the Richmond area more and more. State law has numerous provisions providing incentives for regional cooperation.

      Before South Boston reverted to a town, the city and Halifax County operated a joint high school. That seems to be the case with Lexington City and Rockbridge County now. Also, Fairfax County provides school services to residents of Fairfax City. However, the city of Falls Church, surrounded by Fairfax County, has its own school system. (Paradoxically, Falls Church High School is part of the Fairfax County school system. The high school for the city of Falls Church is George Mason High School,)

  8. tmtfairfax Avatar

    It’s time for the General Assembly to allow Virginia residents the ability to decide how they want to be governed locally. A locality should be able to become a town or independent city based on the desire of registered voters and the setting up of a local government. New localities should assume a pro-rata portion of county debt and pension liabilities. Counties and cities should be able to contract with each other for services.

    The issue on reversion is more complicated because of the possibility that the reverting town/city might push substantial costs onto the county and its residents. A county should have the right to reject reversion or condition it on creating a special tax district that covers the former town or city.

    1. Ted McCormack Avatar
      Ted McCormack

      I cannot believe that substantial costs would be pushed to the county. Recall that the county will be able to levy a whole host of taxes within the former city. In addition, the county will receive the bulk of any sales taxes derived from purchases in the former city. As Dick said above, there are special provisions state law for reversion and consolidation that could result in more state aid coming the the affected county.

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    Another major area of difference between cities and counties in Virginia is how roads are done. I note that longtime commenter “Bosun” has made a comment recently and he seems to be knowledgeable in that area.

    Virginia is one of very few states where the State level DOT – VDOT maintains county roads – in other states, it’s the county that bears that responsibility and it has tremendous impact on WHERE commercial growth occurs.

    In Virginia, if not mistaken, the towns and cities are responsible for the roads within their boundaries but they do receive from the state -some “share” of transportation monies that accrue from fuel and sales taxes but not sure if there is strict separation as to where those revenues come from in terms of jurisdictional boundaries.

    Two counties in Virginia are responsible for “their” roads – Henrico and Arlington (like cities and towns). “Their” means “local” as the state, VDOT still maintains responsibility for Primary and Interstates statewide.

    Roads play a significant role in where development can occur or not – as much or more so than zoning.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      I used to be very familiar with this stuff, but now am a bit rusty. But I will try to respond, but, please, anyone correct me, if needed.

      The state of Virginia has the largest road system in the country precisely because the state constructs and maintains most of the roads, as opposed to local governments in other states.

      The state is responsible for constructing and maintaining primary roads, even if they are in cities. The state is responsible for constructing and maintaining secondary roads in counties. The exceptions are Arlington and Henrico, which exercised their option back in the 1920’s under the Byrd road bill to continue ownership of secondary roads. Members of the Henrico County management have commented to me that was the best decision the county ever made. Arlington and Henrico, however, do receive some VDOT funding as the state share of the costs.

      Cities and towns are responsible for all the streets in their jurisdictions, except primary and interstate highways. There is a “city street” formula whereby VDOT disburses state funds to cities to aid in their street maintenance. There is no distinction made as to the jurisdictional source of those funds; it all comes from the big pot.

      The new regional transportation taxing authorities have made this complicated situation even more complex.

      1. JuniusQuercus Avatar

        Virginia’s system is third largest. Texas and North Carolina are one and two, respectively. Arlington, Henrico, and cities (plus towns over 3500 population) receive more dollars per lane mile for maintenance than VDOT uses everywhere else. All very complex, and more so by the day.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          And Smart Scale has totally changed the game …………

      2. Paul Sweet Avatar
        Paul Sweet

        It’s been years since I saw this information, but I believe that VDOT allocated 3 or more times per mile to cities than to counties, and Arlington & Henrico counties got even more than cities.

        VDOT maps show town roads with a T in front of the route number. I don’t know whether they get more than counties but less than cities for these roads.

      3. LarrytheG Avatar

        Roads , more specifically, the kind/size of road has a significant impact on commercial and industrial development – Potential.

        VDOT/Primary roads have different standards for designs and curb cuts, etc…

        on the City/Town thing, more ignorance on my part.

        When we say “revert” – is it from City to Town but NOT Town – just county?

      4. Brian Leeper Avatar
        Brian Leeper

        No, the state does NOT maintain primary routes in cities. Route 28 in Manassas Park, for example, is maintained by Manassas Park, not VDOT.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          VDOT (and the Feds also can) sets the actual design, maintenance and operational standards for the primary roads (like Route 28) but other entities, contractors or the city may perform the actual work. Every level/classification of road – like Interstate, Primary and secondary, and subdivision have specific design, maintenance and operational standards that are controlled by the Feds, States, locals.

          1. Brian Leeper Avatar
            Brian Leeper

            Yes, of course. Doesn’t change what I said.

            By the way, the oversight from VDOT is pretty lax, a city can get away with neglecting their roads for quite a while before VDOT does anything, if in fact they ever do. And they apparently don’t require that cities actually document how they are spending the road maintenance funds that VDOT gives them. Or if they do, there is zero penalty for the city for not complying.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            Yep. But the point is that it’s VDOT that sets/maintains the standards (even if lax – it’s on VDOT).

            I can give an example of where VDOT enforces standards even in cities.

            Take a 4-lane road with median crossovers – and traffic increases, more folks use the crossovers and more accidents and flow disruption occurs.

            VDOT will close that crossover and then increased the left turn stack lane at the lights.

            When a road is upgraded, VDOT decides the drainage and how big and where the storm pond goes.

            How much they rigorously enforce for other things like where there are ped crossings and what kind, etc… some of that is a working relationship with give and take, depending on the individuals performing the roles.

            BUT make no mistake, it’s VDOT that is the authority right on down to whether or not a new subdivision road will be accepted into the state system.

            One more thing to point out from earlier posts –

            VDOT has the 3rd largest STATE-MAINTAINED road system but that does NOT mean that Virginia has the 3rd largest road system by a long shot:

            Virginia is about 29th in total lane miles and this points out the fact that in many/most other states , the localities maintain the local/county roads not the state DOT.


  10. Ted McCormack Avatar
    Ted McCormack

    Great job, Dick. You said it better than I did. Bosun

  11. DJRippert Avatar

    A good histories of cities in Virginia. According to the article cities and counties have been effectively separate for quite a while, at least since the 1902 Constitution. However, the constitutional requirement that cities and counties remain totally separate was only memorialized in the 1971 Constitution.


    What was the benefit?

    Why is Virginia the only state in the US where cities are not (almost always) within counties.

    There are three exceptions to the “cities are within counties” rules outside of Virginia – St Louis, Baltimore and Carson City. Given that Czrson City has a population of around 50,000 – let’s exclude it.

    How successful do you perceive the independent cities of Baltimore and St Louis?

    Hint: Anytime the Virginia Constitution or the Virginia General Assembly and any provision that stands along vs the rest of America … that provision is either hopelessly incompetent or an effort to preserve aspects of the Byrd Machine.

    Adding to the insanity of the General Assembly is the “temporary” ban of annexations and of new city incorporations.

    As Dick states:

    “In the mid-80’s, the legislature enacted a “temporary” moratorium on all city-initiated annexations. That moratorium was extended several times. The current extension expires in 2024.”

    A forty year “temporary ban”?

    Sounds like an effective memorialization of segregation to me. My guess is that bigger cities are, on average, more diverse than the surrounding suburbs. Why isn’t a ban on annexation an implicit endorsement of segregation?

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I’m a little surprised. I thought you supported independent cities and wanted more independence for NoVa. No?

      Also – what exactly/precisely is the difference between a city and a town in Virginia.

      What powers does a town have that a county does not have?

      Can a town have schools or not? What determines that?

      What powers does a city have that a town does not have?

      Can both a City OR a Town – revert to county?

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        I do not support independent cities. I do not support a ban on annexation. I do not support a ban on new city incorporation.

        In other words, I do not support any of the hare brained schemes concocted by the “plantation elite” to preserve the Byrd Machine.

        Other Virginia unique or nearly unique ideas I do not support:

        1. One term governors
        2. Uncapped political donations
        3. Off-year elections
        4. Direct election of judges by legislature
        5. Lack of ethics panel
        6. Strict implementation of Dillon’s Rule

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          Okay. So do you support the way Cities work in other states – not independent?

Leave a Reply