The ‘C’ word

Published 10:13 am Saturday, February 5, 2011

Fifteen months after the devastating news of the Franklin paper mill’s closure, elected leaders in Franklin and Southampton County have yet to address a topic that should be aggressively pursued in the new, downsized economy of Western Tidewater.


Contiguous small communities such as Franklin and Southampton County simply don’t have the tax base to continue to support huge, separate government infrastructures and bureaucracies.

If elected leaders in both localities have been deaf to that reality in recent decades, surely the coming budget cycle will get their attention.

Southampton County supervisors might have thought last year — when taxpayers took them to the woodshed for excessive overall spending on one hand and neglect of public education on the other — was bad. The next couple of years could get downright ugly.

The rising cost of providing essential services will be compounded by an almost certain precipitous drop in taxable property values. An every-six-year reassessment of real estate values is under way, and if the appraisal firm has an objective bone in its body, it will conclude that home values have plummeted since 2005.

Supervisors then will have a choice of cutting spending drastically or jacking property tax rates to a level that will make Southampton one of Virginia’s most expensive rural counties in which to live and do business.

Here’s a vote for cutting spending.

An easy, logical way to do so is to share the cost of delivering services that are now duplicated by a neighboring locality.

That Southampton failed to even meet with Franklin on a modest proposal to cooperate on the administration of welfare services in the two localities speaks to the closed-mindedness of county leaders on consolidation.

Prudent citizens who see the value of consolidation will gain some inspiration from two localities in western Virginia.

According to Capital News Service, the state Senate is considering a series of bills that would allow Alleghany County and the city of Covington to merge into a new city called Allegheny Highlands.

The legislation stems from a lawsuit by citizens of Allegheny County and Covington trying to force consolidation.

Population of the area has been dropping since 1960. Allegheny County’s population now stands at about 17,000; Covington has about 6,000 residents. Sound familiar?

If they merge, the new city of Allegheny Highlands will have around 23,000 people — approximately the 20th-largest city in Virginia.

Consolidation would not only make local government more efficient and less expensive but also help bring jobs back to the area, supporters in that community believe.

If the General Assembly blesses the merger, it will go to the Virginia Commission on Local Government, have to be approved there, then to a three-judge panel, be approved there, and then finally to separate voter referendums in Allegheny County and Covington.

Franklin leaders are quick to blame their Southampton counterparts for inaction on consolidation, and they have a point.

But Franklin, unlike Covington, can force its neighboring county to the table. Until the 1960s and its ill-advised decision to become an independent city, Franklin was part of Southampton County. By voluntarily reverting to town status, Franklin would force consolidation of most government services in the two localities.

An uncooperative Southampton’s only recourse would be to plead for the Commission on Local Government to reject the city’s petition. A cash-strapped commonwealth isn’t about to stop a reversion that would result in smaller state funding for local services.

That should be a last resort. The better course is for Southampton to be a willing participant in a consolidation that reduces taxes and produces better services for its citizens.

STEVE STEWART is publisher of The Tidewater News. His e-mail address is