Bedford to look at reverting to town status

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By Tom Wilmoth

Forty years after voting to establish itself as a city of the second class, City of Bedford officials are now in talks with Bedford County officials aimed at returning Bedford to town status.

Following a closed door meeting of the City/County Relations Committee Monday, Bedford Mayor Skip Tharp and Supervisor's Chairman Steve Arrington, announced that both jurisdictions were studying the proposal, at the request of the city.

"This seems to be an opportune time to consider the transition," stated Mayor Tharp. "The city believes that transition to town status would not result in any significant financial disadvantages to either jurisdiction and may in fact result in financial advantages."

Though such transitions can be adversarial, the city and county appear ready to work together on the issue. The process, if pursued, would be expected to take at least two years. A proposed agreement would go before a three judge panel appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court after a study is done by the state commissioner of local government. If approved by the panel, the effective date of the change would be six months later. The debt of the city would remain the town's sole responsibility.

"Hopefully we'll be able to work through the whole process with them (the county)," stated Bedford City Manager Charles Kolakowski Tuesday afternoon.

Monday's meeting was the first official discussion between the city and county, though informal talks have been ongoing for some time. The City/County Relations Committee is made up of two representatives from each governing body as well as city and county staff.

Bedford has been an independent jurisdiction since Town Council voted to become a city in 1968. Bedford is one of several small cities in Virginia that share the services of the sheriff, judges and court systems.

The city also contracts with the county to provide a number of other services including schools, social services and health services. At times, the school contract has become an issue as school funding has been discussed. Though the city contracts with the county for school services, the city owns both Bedford Elementary and Bedford Middle School.

The city asked for discussions with the supervisors because so many of the governmental services are already shared and several of those contracts will be up for renewal soon, Kolakowski noted. Because of those established relationships, he said some of the contentious issues that can come up with regard to buildings and employees in such arrangements could be avoided.

"The relationship is largely contractual already," he said.

Of course, the process is just beginning.

"It's been something on the city side that we've discussed informally at the staff level," Kolakowski said about looking at reverting from city status to a town, adding that council members have been unanimously in agreement about studying the issue with the county.

Tharp was expected to make a statement about the issue at Tuesday night's council meeting and council was also expected to meet in executive session for further discussion.

Kolakowski said negative feelings are sometimes expressed when the school contract between the city and county is mentioned. He said that issue has frustrated both city and county officials.

He added that though the city and county work together in a unique economic development relationship ? in which they share tax revenues for a city business park and several economic development zones in surrounding county territory ? the two governments can still find themselves competing over economic opportunities. "There is still that level of competition for economic development," he said, adding that it's hard enough to compete with other localities without having to do so with an immediate neighbor.

Kolakowski said with Bedford as a town, there could be better planning for important issues such as economic development, schools and transportation.

The study will look at the impact of the city reverting to a town. Kolakowski said an outside consultant could be brought in to help put together the details. "It does get fairly complicated and technical," he said. "Right now we're just taking the first step. We would like to move it as rapidly but as thoughtfully as possible."

The issue of reverting back to town status has been floating around for years, Kolakowski said. "It has been discussed informally at many different times. ...I think it has finally come to focus."

He said it's important to make sure such a move is beneficial to both sides. "It's a tough decision," Kolakowski said of the proposal, adding that it might be time to deal with what at times could be a difficult status quo. "Maybe it's time to look at the structure of the relationship."

Supervisors Chairman Steve Arrington agreed that the transition could be a positive move for both the city and the county.

"I would hope that a transition would give us the opportunity to streamline operations on both sides," Arrington said. "If the transition is successful, it should allow us to concentrate on long-range planning for schools and economic development in the city and the surrounding area."

County spokesman Bill Hoy added, "We welcome talking with the city and look forward to working with them on whatever they decide to do."