The One-Sided Decision in the Reversion of Martinsville – the Start of a Trend?

by James C. Sherlock

The Martinsville Bulletin, perhaps the best remaining newspaper in the state for local coverage, published a must-read article on the reversion of Martinsville from city to town and joining Henry County.


Martinsville’s current city logo, above, was perhaps prescient. Martinsville has been hemorrhaging population, losing more than 18% in the past 10 years, and was financially stressed before that loss.

Reversion in Virginia is a one-handed game. The small cities hold all of the cards.

Henry County is vocally opposed but feels helpless to stop it. The Henry County Supervisors voted to skip the legal process to avoid the costs. They called the reversion MOU “the best we could hope for and voted for it to avoid years of court battles”.

They are right  What they avoided was the special court that would have overseen the reversion under Virginia law had they not come to an agreement. The county would have been a defendant in a trial.

The rules for that court specified in that law give the small cities every advantage in a trial. That same special court would have overseen the transition for a decade. Every decision.

The changes reversion portends for city and county residents are massive. Now that his has happened, does anyone think this will be the last reversion?

Virginia law

From the applicable Virginia law:

Any city in this Commonwealth with a population at the time of the latest United States decennial census of less than 50,000 people, after fulfilling the requirements of Chapter 29 (§ 15.2-2900 et seq.), may by ordinance passed by a recorded majority vote of all the members thereof, petition the circuit court for the city, alleging that the city meets the criteria set out in § 15.2-4106 for an order granting town status to the city. The circuit court with which the petition is filed shall notify the Supreme Court, which shall appoint a special court to hear the case as prescribed by Chapter 30 (§ 15.2-3000 et seq.) of this title.

The Henry County website reflects a reaction by a county that was given no say in the matter. Bold words are bold on the website:

Henry County and its citizens cannot stop reversion. Under the Code of Virginia, a city with a population less than 50,000 may initiate reversion merely with a vote of that city’s governing body. No referendum is required of city residents or of residents from the surrounding locality, in this case, Henry County. Henry County tried numerous times to establish a referendum requirement through action by the General Assembly, but the proposed legislation never passed. Henry County may participate in the process before the Commission on Local Government, but it cannot stop reversion. At best, it can ask for terms and conditions that will lessen reversion’s impact on the County.

Given these realities, the Board of Supervisors determined that the best path forward was to negotiate with the City of Martinsville and try to soften the impact on the County and our residents. These discussions led to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the localities.

Regardless of whether the localities reached a negotiated settlement or if the process played out over many years in the court system, Henry County has no choice but to assume responsibility for the following services following reversion:

  • Educating all Martinsville school students – there will be no Martinsville school system, and all students will become part of the Henry County school system
  • Taking over duties such as Treasurer, Commissioner of the Revenue, Elections and Registrar, Jail and Corrections, Commonwealth’s Attorney, and all court systems
  • Taking on 100% of the local costs for Social Services and Health Department

Transitioning these services to the County and providing these services will be very expensive!

Martinsville will lose its school board and likely its circuit court.

Virginia counties and cities are required to elect five constitutional officers

“The voters of each county and city shall elect a treasurer, a sheriff, an attorney for the Commonwealth, a clerk, who shall be clerk of the court in the office of which deeds are recorded, and a commissioner of revenue.”

Those offices will be lost to Martinsville.

Martinsville police, fire and rescue, public works, school employees and everyone else in Martinsville government will become town employees.

Health Care 

Then there is health care – of sorts.

The largest employer in the City of Martinsville, the Martinsville campus of Sovah Health, employs over 700 people, has over 100 physicians and allied health professionals and provides over 22 medical specialties.  On Medicare Hospital Compare, it has a three star overall rating and a one-star patient rating.

The good news is that Sovah Martinsville paid $9,301,062 in taxes last year and distributed a payroll of $53,803,229 to more than 720 employees.

Under the heading of semi-prescription healthcare, a 2019 Washington Post analysis of data from the DEA’s opioid database shows that two Virginia cities—Norton (306 pills per person) and Martinsville (242 pills per person)—received the most opioid pain pills per capita in the country between 2006 and 2012.  Some of those certainly were consumed in the county, but that is no reason to celebrate.


Henry County is under no long term obligation obligation to fund all of the current Martinsville employees. And the new “town” of Martinsville certainly can’t. That is why it is reverting.

Henry County is not Fairfax.  The Census Bureau puts the Henry County median household income at $37,952.  The Martinsville number is $34,371.  Statewide it is $74,922.

Education and Race

There is active discussion of closing Martinsville High School. There are too few students for that very large school and room for the students in Henry County’s two high schools. No word on what happens to Martinsville High teachers. Martinsville residents are of course upset at this potential closing.

Racial politics are just below the surface on both sides.

Martinsville High School student body is 62% Black. Henry County’s two High Schools are 15% and 29% Black respectively. Because there are over 1,000 students each in the two Henry County high schools and about 500 in Martinsville High, each is likely to remain majority white if Martinsville HS is closed.

“The MOU, produced as a result of two days of mediation, includes a requirement that Martinsville and Henry County jointly apply to The Harvest Foundation to fund a comprehensive study of the consolidated school system to determine what arrangement will be most efficient and least expensive while being sensitive to “racial and economic equity.”

Then comes the most pregnant sentence in the article.

“The Virginia Department of Education and Board of Education will be invited to participate in that study.”

So, the study will be hyper-politicized with the dogma-driven participation of the uber-woke Board and Department of Education in rural school board matters as long as we have Democratic Governors appointing the Board.

That should go well.

Future reversion candidates

But the reversion dam is broken.

I looked at the data presented by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development in 2017 (2014 data) on the ten Virginia cities experiencing the greatest financial stress to see where the next reversions may be put into play.

The are ranked from the most stressed.   I added the 2020 population, the growth in population from 2010 to 2020 and the median household income 2019.  Virginia median household income in 2019 was $74,222.

  1. Emporia 5,346               -5.6%.    $27,063
  2. Buena Vista 6,478        +1.9%.    $32,455
  3. Petersburg* 31,346        -6.6%.   $38,679
  4. Martinsville 12,554     -18.2%      $34,371
  5. Covington 5,538.         -12%.        $40,655
  6. Galax 6,347                  – 7.3%.      $33,575
  7. Lynchburg* 82,168   + 25.8%.    $46,409
  8. Franklin 7,967             – 3.7%.      $40,417
  9. Hopewell 22,529.       +1.0%.       $39,030
  10. Radford  18,249        +15%.          $36,297

Only cities with less than 50,000 residents are eligible for reversion under Virginia law. That eliminates Lynchburg.  Two of those cities, Petersburg and Lynchburg, host hospitals that are tax exempt.

Using those data and choosing only cities that are also losing population, we can perhaps surmise that Emporia, Petersburg, Covington, Galax, and Franklin are the most likely candidates along with highly financial-stressed Buena Vista.

Looking ahead

Now that Martinsville has led the way, the politics of reversion likely will roil those cities and surrounding counties very quickly. And Martinsville will need a new logo.

The state government will be there to “help.”

God save them all.

(Updated 2:40 PM May 28)