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Today is the day Bedford changes into a town, completing the long and complicated reversion process that began in 2008.
The Roanoke Times | File 2012
Bedford is the third independent city in Virginia to revert to a town. Officials have been working on the reversion since 2008, citing a shrinking tax base.
Monday, July 1, 2013
BEDFORD — On numerous occasions while presiding over city council meetings as mayor and vice mayor in recent years, Bob Wandrei has asked if there were any “reversions to the agenda” when he meant to say, “revisions to the agenda.”
It was an honest slip of the tongue.
“Reversion” has become a commonplace term in city and county government in Bedford since 2008. That’s when the city announced its intention to become a town again — by a complicated process known as reversion — and no longer be independent of Bedford County.
And today, as they say, is the day.
Folks in the city of Bedford woke up this morning as residents of both the town of Bedford and Bedford County. The last time that happened was in 1968, before the then-town became an independent city.
An estimated several hundred county residents who lived on the outskirts of some city areas, meanwhile, now are town citizens, too.
Bedford City Councilman Skip Tharp said the goal today is for residents to not even notice the change from an independent city to a town took place in terms of services provided. The electricity still will come on, the garbage will be hauled away and water will flow from faucets, he said.
But the historic transformation is not a measure that has passed without significance. Officials speak of the reversion as perhaps the most important decision they have made in city government and helped steer into reality in recent years.
“I am just extremely proud to be part of it,” said Tharp, who helped guide the process as mayor from its announcement in 2008 to last December, when the reversion was approved by a three-judge state panel. (Wandrei replaced Tharp as mayor in January.) “To see it come into place is a dream come true.”
Bedford is the third city in Virginia to revert to a town. South Boston reverted and joined Halifax County in the mid-1990s, and Clifton Forge switched to a town and folded into Alleghany County a decade ago.
In Virginia’s code, cities with populations below 50,000 may initiate a reversion. Bedford city leaders approached county officials five years ago to express their intention and offer participation in hammering out a mutual agreement that was finalized last year.
The measure has trimmed more than $7 million in the general fund in the town’s new budget that starts today compared to the city’s 2012-13 fiscal budget. A study the city initiated found that the town could reap an annual net benefit of $1 million.
Switching from a city to a town has led to about 32 fewer positions, Town Manager Charles Kolakowski said. Most of those workers now are employed by the Bedford Regional Water Authority, a merged entity of the county public service authority and city’s water and sewer department, he said.
Bedford County, meanwhile, has added more than 6,000 residents and nearly 7 square miles.
For more than three years, the many complex details of the reversion were ironed out in closed meetings under a state law provision that excluded the public. Tharp has said the intent was not to hide information, but to ensure the transition came swiftly and smoothly. The reversion agreement was unveiled in September 2011 when the city council and the board of supervisors voted to move the plan forward.
Several supervisors have said the county could not legally halt the reversion and expressed gratitude to the city for working out a mutual plan.
The Virginia Commission on Local Government and the three-judge panel last year approved the reversion and complimented the two governments for working together.
Tharp said city leaders visualized the process at the planning table and compared finding a “more stable course” for Bedford’s government to steering an aircraft carrier. City staff has worked on the reversion daily, and seeing the change finally come to fruition today is “very gratifying,” he said.
“The fabric of our community, of our government, is stronger than it was,” Tharp said. “We are going to be stronger and better.”
The measure also has yielded a town whose borders are larger than those of the former city. Eight pocket areas in the county that bordered city limits now are folded into the town, adding nearly 2 square miles and about 300 residents, city officials project.
Virginia law currently prohibits cities from annexing land in surrounding counties, but that does not pertain to towns. City Manager Charles Kolakowski testified in state hearings on the reversion last year that the state moratorium on annexation has landlocked Bedford and made it more challenging to expand the tax base, especially as a number of struggling businesses shuttered operations.
Kolakowski said at a recent town hall meeting in Bedford the main benefit of the reversion is the removal of “artificial boundaries” that distinguish a 6-square-mile city in the middle of a 700-square-mile county. The two governments are partnering, not competing, for economic development and education enhancement, he said.
Wandrei said the reversion fits in nicely with trends of government doing more to consolidate functions and operate efficiently.
“It was a long process, but it’s been worth it,” Vice Mayor Jim Vest said at the meeting.
Not all sides in the city-county agreement got what they wanted in all areas, he said, but in his opinion the agreement was fair.
“We will all work together to improve Bedford County,” Vest said.
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