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What's the deal with Charlottesville-Albemarle Revenue Sharing?

Virginia alone among the 50 states separates cities from counties completely. Cities cannot tax county people, counties cannot tax city people. Despite being surrounded by a county, a city is not part of it in any way. The technical term is Independent Cities.

For Virginia cities to grow in area, they must take in land outside the city -- county land. Typically that land will be where the shopping centers and factories are, because these bring in bigger tax revenues and fewer kids to school. The process of lawfully converting county property to city property is called annexation, and courts are involved.

Charlottesville has annexed part of Albemarle 8 times, depriving the county of those taxes forever.

When it was proposed a ninth time in the late 1970s, the two governments met to devise a way for Charlottesville to get added revenue without annexation. City council and the board of supervisors spent months working out how to do it. What they came up with is that whichever government taxed its people more, the other government would pay them some sum every year. The formula is complex but that sums it up.

And there would be no annexation so long as this Agreement was in force. It was drawn to last forever, never expire.

Due to state laws, Charlottesville city council was empowered to accept this deal, and did, but in Albemarle it was the voters who had to approve it.

By coincidence, around this time some UVa students came to the Albemarle Democratic Committee with a proposal to do a county survey as a class project, asking whatever questions the committee had any interest in. A committee member with survey training worked with them on the questionnaire. He included questions on Revenue Sharing.

The poll showed that only 23% of county voters approved revenue sharing. Everyone considered it "tribute" and only 23% were willing to pay.

The annexation process is expensive and wasteful to both sides. The power structure of both city and county wanted revenue sharing to be passed by county voters. The Chamber of Commerce formed a committee to promote it. The 4Cs Committee hired a former newspaper reporter with public relations and survey experience as the director.

He met with county Democratic chair Bruce Rasmussen in the Court Square Tavern to discuss ideas. With revenue sharing having a bad name, they agreed the campaign should focus on preventing annexation. The result was the creation of SAFE - Stop Annexation Forever.

That night the detested -tribute- that poisoned the deal faded away, replaced with guarding Albemarle from being gobbled up.

The director wrote a booklet converting the complex legal document to understandable terms. It was published as an insert in the Daily Progress with artist Charles Peale's "Annexation Monster" on the cover. In the final days before the vote, the Prog wrote editorials based on the booklet for an entire week.

On voting day posters of the monster adorned every polling place, with emphasis on the suburbs whose voters were near-unanimous against being annexed.

Meanwhile the entire board of urban supervisors, Dems and Republicans, were doing the heavy lifting, speaking to county groups nearly every night and responding to the same questions again and again, like, "Will it really only cost Albemarle taxpayers ten cents added to the tax rate?" [Yes] No one was relying on PR alone for passage.

Was there organized opposition? There was.

Albemarle's exploding suburban population had diluted the power of rural farmers, yeomen, and land barons who had from day one controlled county growth. Suburbanites favored a minimum lot size for new houses of an acre or less and allow high density. The rural community wanted building lots to be at least 2 acres and preferably five or even ten. For years Albemarle had a pro-growth, slow-growth war on its hands.

The politically powerful county sheriff, George Bailey, became the spokesman for the rural side. They wanted the revenue sharing vote to fail so the city would annex the suburbs, returning control of the Board of Supervisors to the rural areas.

Bailey chose as his emphatic talking point the -danger- in there being no termination date in the agreement. SAFE chose as its emphatic talking point the -security- in their being no termination. Once voted in, the governments would be locked into the deal unless both agreed to end it.

Bailey and SAFE and government leaders brought their views regularly to the one TV station in town. SAFE also stressed that this could bring the city and county into a long overdue partnership. "The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago; the second best time is now." That resonated. On May 18, 1982, Albemarle voters approved revenue sharing by 63%.

5 of the 6 magisterial districts voted for it, the 5 bordering the city and subject to possible annexation.

So what has happened since 1982?

Albemarle has sent a payment to Charlottesville every single year, about $300 million by 2018, because the city's higher tax rates always put it on the receiving end of the formula.

By sheer good management, or something, the city announces a sometimes multi-million dollar "surplus" every fiscal year because they collected more in taxes than the budget required. This assures the revenue sharing formula will favor the city. That can't change because Albemarle is under constant pressure to be frugal, while Charlottesville's budget funds a people's republic.

Then the unexpected happened.

A couple of years after the deal was signed in 1982, the state legislature passed a temporary moratorium on annexation. When it expired they extended it. When it expired the second time they changed state law and made annexation hugely expensive, if allowed at all.

Since then not a small number of county people began screaming they are being robbed, getting nothing for their tribute. Now that the majority of county voters weren't here in 1982 and know little of what you just read, the agitation against the agreement is rising to a roar.

As a result, the legislature was implored to make Charlottesville account for all that money Albemarle gave them. They responded in 2018 by requiring an annual meeting between ALL localities with a so-called growth-sharing agreement in effect for at least 10 years with annual payments exceeding $5 million.

County malcontents with torches fueled are ready to descend on city hall demanding to see how this $300 million benefited them. The city is preparing a response.

What could go wrong?

[The writer was director of SAFE]

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Page last updated Dec. 28, 2018