Don’t Put a Check in the Mail

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Thomas Jefferson famously said that there should be revolution every 20 years or so. It’s been a generation since the Revenue Sharing Agreement between the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County was signed in 1982 and it’s due for an overthrow. The agreement, ratified by a referendum, amounted to a cease fire in the turbulent annexation politics of that day as expanding cities plucked the juiciest fruit, the lucrative commercial tax sources, that sat just across county lines, usually do-si-doing around the residential areas that demanded expensive services.

A year after Albemarle and Charlottesville signed their truce, according to which the county began its annual tribute payments, the General Assembly called a halt to the brawling with a moratorium on annexation that remains in effect to this day. Albemarle is the only county in Virginia that makes an annual payment to a city. Had it resisted a deal for another year, the city’s threat to pocket Fashion Square Mall would have simply vanished.

Albemarle has been faithful to the deal even though its citizens feel abused by it, watching their county services shrink and tax bills rise in leaps and bounds as the city swaps out the bricks on its downtown mall or opens a new transit stop that makes an architectural statement on behalf of typically empty buses. Ten cents of every tax dollar paid by Albemarle residents is being spent at the discretion of Charlottesville City Council. That was a reason for a tea party back in 1776.

The agreement allows for a divorce if the city and county consolidate, if state law abandons the concept of  independent cities, or if “the city and county agree to cancel or change the agreement.” Naturally, the city doesn’t see a reason to talk about not getting $18 million next year.  On their end, it ain’t broke, so what’s to fix?

But they’ll be ready to talk when they don’t get their check. The Supervisors should show that they are prepared to withhold payment and ultimately drag the business into the courts if the city won’t agree to a cordial negotiation of new terms.

Ultimately, the agreement has to go. That will mean the establishment of a new boundary that sufficiently enlarges the city’s tax base. The county’s “urban ring” around the city is de facto a part of the city, so what we have is one urban area being administered by two governments. The growth of the urban ring has shifted county politics, which should be about rural and town administration, to suburban priorities that will continue to produce conflicts within the county’s natural character. The economic crisis is, as the say in parliamentary procedure, calling the question. We might as well answer it.