STATEMENT TO COMMISSION ON LOCAL GOVERNMENT
September 13, 2016
Mr. Chairman, members of the Commission:
I am Bill Robertson, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors of Prince George County. I have been a member of the Board of Supervisors since 2004.
Prince George County is located in south central Virginia adjacent to the Cities of Hopewell and Petersburg as well as a number of other cities and counties (Map 1). The County is comprised of 282 square miles with a current estimated population of 37,862. Since the Civil War, over 23.65 square miles have been taken from Prince George as the result of the incorporation of Hopewell as a city and numerous annexations since then by Petersburg and Hopewell.
The County is governed by a five-member Board of Supervisors elected from two elections districts. Prince George itself, provides most services that you would expect to see in cities. The County has recently received a number of upgrades in its bond rating and currently is rated as a AA+ locality. For the last 12 years, the County has received the GFOA Award for Excellence in government accounting.
A short look at the history of annexation of Prince George County provides a perfect case study in why city annexation of adjacent counties is an archaic, outdated process that solves nothing and surprisingly; actually can cause harm to the annexing city in addition to the harm that it inflicts on counties. The annexation process also harms the State as a whole because it destabilizes citizens’ expectations and complicates long-term investment decisions by businesses.
In the last successful annexation of Prince George by Petersburg in 1971, Petersburg obtained over nine (9) square miles of the County, in part because the City argued that it was better prepared to provide municipal-type services than Prince George and that the City needed more land for expected new development. The annexation also stripped Prince George of much of its commercial tax base.
Fast forward just 14 years, to 1985 and Petersburg was back at the table again seeking more land from Prince George. This time the City of Hopewell also joined the fray to try to pick off commercial areas of Prince George, a city that already had huge amounts of taxable industry within its borders. But this time, after five years of expensive and disruptive litigation, the results were different. Virginia courts, including the Supreme Court, unanimously ruled that the cities had not shown that annexation would benefit their cities or was necessary to provide effective governmental services to Prince George residents.
IMPACTS OF ANNEXATION
But even after winning and with no change in Prince George’s boundaries, the annexation litigation touched off decades of negative impact on regional relationships. These strained relationships slowed down regional progress and eroded business confidence in the region. The level of local hostility was so high that the normally very conservative voters in Prince George voted 4,375 to 270 to treat Prince George as a city for the purpose of issuing debt thereby eliminating the referendum requirement for debt issuance. This was a remarkable response from a very conservative electorate to the threat of annexation. And for years after the litigation, governmental services in the County had to be shaped in ways to make sure that Prince George would be in a position to defend itself against any future annexation attempts.
Nor does just adding acreage to cities cure political conflict within city councils or cure governance problems within cities. As an example, much of the undeveloped acreage annexed from Prince George in 1971 was still undeveloped by the time of the 1985 annexation; a point dwelt upon by the court when rejecting Petersburg’s annexation petition. And I might add this land is still mostly vacant today. And although Prince George has thrived during the moratorium period, Petersburg continues to struggle with internal governance issues. Also in 1985 the U. S. Department of Defense weighed in on a local issue by strongly opposing Petersburg’s attempted annexation because of the presence of Fort Lee in Prince George. Now with the annexation moratorium in place for a number of years, I feel we – in the Tri-Cities area, have moved beyond the destructive, blunt instrument of annexation.
EQUALIZATION OF POWERS
Significantly, during the annexation moratorium, the powers of cities and counties have been largely equalized by the General Assembly. There is virtually nothing now that a city can do that a county cannot do. Counties can now use varied approaches to providing services and can easily differentiate between developed and undeveloped areas when responding to different needs.
Since the last annexation, the General Assembly’s emphasis has been on incentivizing regional cooperation and the joint provisions of services. For example, in today’s positive moratorium environment, Prince George participates with many other jurisdictions to provide regional services in such areas as:
Community Corrections - probation/drug court;Libraries (1 city & 2 counties);Economic development (3 cities & 5 counties);Regional jail (3 cities & 3 counties);Vocational high school (3 counties);Sewer, water and waste authorities (2 cities & 3 counties);Police and fire mutual aid agreements (all adjoining localities – we are first responders in certain areas of Hopewell [Fire]);Workforce Investment Board (4 cities & 5 counties).
Localities can only participate in these positive relationships, partnerships or joint ventures when they are not threatened by annexation.
MOBILITY OF CITIZENS
Much else has changed in society since the 1971 annexation of Prince George as well. A notable change is the increased mobility of citizens who will not be constrained by artificial political boundaries caused by annexation that run roughshod over their personal decisions about where they want to live. If citizens are unhappy about being involuntarily switched to a different locality, they will vote with their feet by moving.
For all these reasons we are asking the Commission to recommend the continuation of the current moratorium on city-initiated annexations. All of the demonstrated negative impacts of annexation are not just conjecture or guesses. These bad outcomes have been confirmed for years by the reality of governmental relations in the Tri-Cities area. Annexation is an antiquated system that has no relevance today and opening up the possibilities of annexation makes no sense for Virginia in the future.
Thank you for your time.
William A. Robertson, Jr., Chairman