Commission on the Condition and Future of Virginia's CitiesJune 3, 1998, Richmond
The 24-member commission is comprised of House and Senate members, representatives of local government, and members of the Governor's cabinet. HJR 432, which authorizes a two-year study by the commission, calls for an examination of a wide array of issues, including:1. Identification of Virginia's cities' strengths and needs;In addition, the commission is called upon to initiate a statewide summit of all relevant parties for the purpose of discussing the condition and needs of Virginia's cities and fashioning appropriate remedies to ensure the future of the Commonwealth. Finally, HJR 432 calls for the commission to recommend such statutory, policy, and regulatory changes and initiatives as the commission deems necessary.
2. Development of a demographic profile of Virginia's cities;
3. Review of all state laws pertaining to the jurisdictional boundaries and governing structure of Virginia's cities and determination of whether and the extent to which such laws have contributed to the urban crisis in cities;
4. Assessment of the current social and economic condition of Virginia's cities including their ability to provide vital public services and to attract and sustain business and industry;
5. Determination of the impact of state and federal laws and regulations on the ability of cities to provide required services with limited resources;
6. Analysis of the impact of the migration of middle class families from cities and the relocation of business and industry, particularly in the inner city, on the city's tax base, public schools, racial polarization, and quality of life;
7. Analysis of the funding formulas for state aid to localities; and
8. Comparison of Virginia's cities to comparable cities in other states with regard to the delivery of vital public services.
The Virginia Constitution defines city as "...an independent incorporated community which became a city as provided by law before noon on the first day of July, nineteen hundred seventy-one, or which has within defined boundaries a population of 5,000 or more and which has become a city as provided by law..." (Article VII, Section 1, Constitution of Virginia). Virginia currently has 40 cities.
A fundamental and unique feature of Virginia local government is city-county separation. Under this practice, which is not followed on a statewide basis elsewhere in the United States, Virginia's cities are autonomous, primary political subdivisions, governmentally independent of the county, or counties, in which they are geographically located.
City independence did not begin suddenly but evolved gradually and developed through the years until it gained general acceptance. It achieved a formal place in Virginia local government under legislation enacted shortly after the Constitution of 1869 went into effect. A statute was passed to divide counties into three or more townships, except no part of any town or city having a separate organization or a population of 5,000 or more was to be included in any township. The 1971 Virginia Constitution for the first time formally recognized independent cities.
In the past, Virginia's cities have had the ability to annex territory from the surrounding county in order to expand economic development opportunities, capture fringe development, and increase their population base. However, cities are currently prohibited by Section 15.2-3201 of the Code of Virginia from initiating annexation proceedings. The initial moratorium in 1971 applied to cities with a population over 125,000 but was soon expanded to all cities, and the last city annexation took place in the mid-1980s. City annexations fell into disfavor with the General Assembly in part because Virginia's unique independent city structure led to a highly adversarial win-lose annexation process.
The Virginia system of annexation by judicial process traces to the Constitution of 1902. Prior to that time, municipal boundaries were expanded by special act of the legislature. The 1902 Constitution contained a provision prohibiting such special acts and requiring the General Assembly to provide by general law for the alteration of corporate limits. In 1904, the General Assembly adopted legislation to establish the procedure that has been used during most of this century.
In the absence of annexation authority, some cities are studying city reversion as a means to solve some of their problems. Under provisions first passed in 1988, any city with a population of less than 50,000 may revert to town status after fulfilling certain requirements. The reversion petition is decided by a special court and does not require approval from the affected county or by residents of either locality. The reversion process may also be initiated by a petition of city voters. Under Virginia's city-county separation structure, a city reversion has significant ramifications, as the territory of the former city becomes a part of the surrounding county. To date, only the City of South Boston has reverted to town status, although several other cities are reportedly exploring the possibility of such a reversion.
A variety of previous studies have examined aspects of city powers and city-county relations.
The Metropolitan Areas Study Commission (Hahn Commission; 1966-1967) concluded that annexation had become less effective and potentially disruptive in larger urban areas. Its major recommendations called for the creation of a Commission on Local Government to replace the courts in annexation and other boundary adjustments, incorporation of towns, and related decisions. The commission also advocated establishing a system of planning districts with the view that a district might evolve into a unit of regional government to be known as the service district. However, the commission continued to support city-county separation.
The Commission on Constitutional Revision (1968) unsuccessfully proposed a 25,000 minimum population for the creation of new cities. Its suggestions for ways to diminish city-county distinctions have been adopted or implemented to some extent. Examples include the granting of county charters and the option now available to counties to be treated as cities with regard to borrowing. The new Constitution provided for "regional government," thus recognizing the Hahn Commission's goals of service districts and other instruments for regional cooperation. The commission's recommendation to reject the Dillon Rule in the new Constitution was not adopted.
The Commission on City-County Relationships' (Stuart Commission, 1971-1977) recommendations were a basis of the annexation "compromise" of 1979. It proposed permanent immunity for certain densely populated counties and more specific boundary adjustment standards. The commission also supported a minimum population of 25,000 for new cities.
The Commission on State Aid to Localities and Joint Subcommittee on Annexation (Michie Commission, 1977-1978) endorsed recommendations of the Stuart Commission. However, the role of economic growth as a factor in annexation efforts was the primary focus of this group. The commission called for the allocation of state aid to localities to be based on need, effort, and ability to pay. Also included were provisions for voluntary fiscal agreements whereby municipalities could forgo annexation rights in return for economic growth-sharing arrangements with counties and the establishment of a Commission on Local Government, as proposed by the Hahn Commission.
The Local Government Structures and Relationships Commission (Grayson Commission, 1986-1989) recommended abolishing the city annexation process, expanding the availability of the city reversion process for cities smaller than 125,000, allowing towns to annex by ordinance, and creating financial incentives for consolidation, including a guarantee that net financial aid would not be reduced for five years following consolidation.
The Governor's Advisory Commission on the Dillon Rule and Local Government (1992) recommended a relaxation, but not repeal, of the Dillon Rule to provide broadly construed authority to localities for certain powers delegated to them by the General Assembly.
At the initial meeting of the HJR 432 commission, staff presented background material and discussed the various resources that would be available to the commission during the course of its study. Also, the director of the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service made a presentation to the commission and distributed demographic data pertaining to cities.
The commission then agreed to divide its work into four subcommittees as follows:
Subcommittee 1 (Summit) will initiate a statewide summit of all relevant parties for the purpose of discussing the condition and needs of Virginia cities and fashioning appropriate remedies to ensure the future of the Commonwealth.
Subcommittee 2 (Legal and Governing Structures) will review all state laws pertaining to jurisdictional boundaries and governing structure and ascertain whether and the extent to which such statutes have contributed to urban crisis. The subcommittee will also determine the impact of state and federal laws and regulations on the ability of cities to provide required services.
Subcommittee 3 (Finances and Fiscal Issues) will assess the current social and economic condition of Virginia's cities, including their fiscal strengths and needs, and their ability to provide vital services and to attract business and industry. The subcommittee will also analyze the funding formulas for state aid to localities.
Subcommittee 4 (Services and Needs) will (i) analyze the impact of the migration of middle-class families from the cities and the relocation of business and industry, particularly in the inner city, on the city's tax base, public schools, racial polarization, and quality of life; (ii) determine how Virginia's cities compare socially, economically, financially, and in the delivery of vital public services to comparable cities in other states; and (iii) consider the recommendations of HJR 219, introduced during the 1998 Session
The commission is in the process of finalizing its 1998 meeting schedule. The next meeting of the full commission is tentatively scheduled for mid-September in Norfolk, with subsequent meetings to be held in Roanoke, Danville, Alexandria and Richmond, and with a statewide summit to be held in Charlottesville. The subcommittees will be meeting throughout July and August.
The Honorable Thomas W. Moss, Jr., Chairman
Legislative Services contact: Jeff Sharp