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.
“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 less than 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. According to a study the city had initiated, the town is expected to 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 seven 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 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, added nearly two 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 the state moratorium on annexation for cities 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 six-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 recent Town Hall.
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.
From expanded borders to changes in tax and utility bills, Bedford city’s reversion to a town, effective today, will impact residents in lots of ways.
With the shift in government structure, the county now provides services that include public education, social services, tourism, building code enforcement, an electoral board, constitutional officers, libraries and emergency dispatching.
The town is responsible for urban services such as police and fire protection, zoning and planning, refuse collection and disposal, street maintenance and storm drainage and recreational facilities.
Here’s a quick look at some changes brought on by the reversion.
City residents were paying a real estate tax rate of 86 cents per $100 of assessed value. Now, they pay a town tax rate of 30 cents and the county rate of 50 cents; the added town real estate tax rate also applies to county residents in annexed territory.
The town’s meals tax is 5 percent of the sale and applies to about a dozen businesses in the annexed areas that were under the county’s 4 percent meals tax. A 30-cent cigarette tax applies in the town, which is aligning its tax year with the county. That means residents would pay tax bills twice a year, June 5 and Dec. 5, rather than quarterly.
The town is larger than the city by about 1.5 square miles. Eight pocket areas bordering city limits now are part of the town and consist of stretches east and west of the city limits on U.S. 460, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Bypass area, the Harmony and Oakwood Villas residential developments and the vicinities of Liberty Lake Park, the Elks National Home and the city’s former landfill.
The Bedford Regional Water Authority now provides water and sewer to town residents. The entity is a merger between the Bedford County Public Service Authority, headquartered on Falling Creek Road, and the city’s water and sewer department. Residents will pay their water and sewer bills once every two months rather than monthly. The town provides electricity to residents and businesses.
The Bedford Police Department will have two-dozen sworn officers patrolling the town, the same as when it was a city, with nearly two additional square miles to cover. That will mean an anticipated 30 percent increase in call volume and likely will lead to longer response times, Chief Jim Day has said. The department no longer will provide a school resource officer at Bedford Middle School; the county will handle that. The officer who served that role is reassigned, Day said.
With the reversion, the city’s school district that contracted with Bedford County Schools for educational services ceases to exist; so does the city school board. Bedford Elementary School, which had been owned by the city, now is under county ownership. The county is leasing Bedford Middle School from the town while a new middle school is built; it is targeted for completion in the summer of 2016.
A city-county reversion agreement calls for the county to pay the town $11.5 million during a 15-year period in exchange of full ownership of the Bedford Central Library, Bedford Elementary and the Bedford Area Welcome Center.
The town will be served by an athletic association with oversight by county parks and recreation.
Town Council will oversee the town government. The public body has six members who served on City Council and one newcomer, Robert Carson, who was elected in May.
The town is divided into two county election districts, District 6 and District 7. Supervisor Annie Pollard serves District 6 and Supervisor Tammy Parker serves District 7. School board member Kelly Harmony serves District 6 and Kevin Willis represents District 7.