© 2006 Virginia Review, LLC

Local Government

Commission on Local Government
Welcomes New Policy Manager

By Hollie S. Cammarasana

The Virginia Commission on Local Government (COLG) may not be the most well known commission in the Commonwealth, but the work that it does affects each of Virginia’s local governments.

What other commission has been so closely involved with locality boundary change actions, annexations and governmental transitions around the state, the identification and assessment of mandates imposed on local governments, and the analysis of the fiscal condition of Virginia’s counties and cities?

The Virginia Commission on Local Government (COLG) plays a role in the day to day activities of local governments. While the commission’s role may be under the radar to many, the work that it does is relevant in each of our everyday lives.

The commission’s new policy manager, Susan Bass Williams, is excited to be a part of such an important organization.

“When I saw the advertisement for the COLG position, I knew this would be a great opportunity to again be able to work with people on a local level on issues that impact our communities and are important to all of us,” Susan Williams said recently.

Susan Williams is a member of the Virginia State Bar and has a law degree from the College of William and Mary, and a bachelor’s of science in administration of justice degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. She began her work with the commission on April 16, and said she is looking forward to the close contact she will have with Virginia’s localities.

She brings an extensive background in working with the General Assembly, state agencies, local constitutional offices, and local governments through her experience at the Virginia State Crime Commission, the Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ Services Council and the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

Susan Williams succeeded Ted McCormack, the commission’s previous associate director of more than 25 years, from December 1980 through November 2006. Ted McCormack left the commission last fall to take the position of director of governmental affairs at the Virginia Association of Counties (VACo).

“Ted McCormack has an encyclopedic knowledge of local government issues in Virginia and provided great support to the commission during his tenure,” said Bill Shelton, director of the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, where the commission resides. “He will greatly be missed.”

Commission member John Kines Jr. commented on the addition of Susan Williams to the COLG team. “A new director with the experience of Susan Williams offers the opportunity to re–examine our programs and evaluate their effectiveness. She brings much experience and knowledge to this process and I am certain she will make a valuable difference” John Kines is a retired local government manager, most recently the Prince George County Administrator. He also continues to work with local government officials, and is considered knowledgeable about local government and its challenges by his peers. He learned about how to deal with the challenges of annexation the hard way, during tug of war boundary issues with surrounding cities.

ABOUT COLG

The COLG was formed by the General Assembly in 1979 to assist local governments and the courts in the review of local boundary changes and governmental transition issues including municipal annexation, consolidation, incorporation, and reversion. In addition, agreements that settle such issues must also be reviewed by the commission, and the commission may assist local governments in negotiating settlements of such issues in its role as mediator.

In 2003, the commission, previously an independent state agency, merged within the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), based on the recommendations of then Governor Mark R. Warner’s Commission on Efficiency and Effectiveness. Since that merger, however, the role of the commission has remained unchanged.

The commission is made up of five members who are appointed to five year terms by the Governor and confirmed by the General Assembly. They are required by law to have knowledge and experience in local government and cannot hold any other elective or appointive office during their term.

Current commission members are Chair Kathleen K. Seefeldt; Vice Chair Frances M. Parsons; Harold H. Bannister Jr.; John G. Kines Jr.; and Vola T. Lawson.

Kathleen Seefeldt was first appointed to the commission in 2004. Before that she served as chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, and as past president of VACo. Frances Parsons has served since 2005 and is a former member of the Blacksburg Town Council, and past president of the Virginia Municipal League (VML). Harold Bannister has served since 2004 and is a former member of the Fredericksburg City Council. John Kines, a member since 2003, and Vola Lawson, another retired local government manager (Alexandria), has been a member since 2006.

All of the commission members are dedicated to the role the COLG plays in the Commonwealth.

“The commission collects and distributes information about fiscal stress, mandates, and more for localities, the General Assembly and state agencies,” said Kathleen Seefeldt. “But most importantly, the commission reviews annexations and boundary adjustment agreements. In that role, the commission determines if proposals are in the best interest of the participant localities as well as the Commonwealth. As an impartial third party, the commission can encourage both sides in a dispute to find win-win solutions.”

John Kines noted, “When I first joined the commission, I thought boundary adjustments would be the main focus of our work, but I now realize the commission’s work helps identify how financial health, land use policies and state mandates determine the effectiveness and efficiency of local governments. The Commission on Local Government is the only agency at the state level that focuses exclusively on local government and how it functions.”

While the moratorium on city initiated annexations has been renewed seven times since it first passed in 1987, and is not currently set to expire until 2010, the commission is still involved in the boundary change and annexation actions of Virginia’s towns. As town boundary expansions do not reduce a county in land area and population, and do not affect in any major way its fiscal base, Virginia’s towns are not barred from initiating annexation proceedings. By the year 2010, cities will have been barred from filing for annexation for 23 years in the Commonwealth.

In addition to its work with boundary changes and interlocal agreements, the commission publishes an annual report analyzing the comparative revenue capacity, effort, and fiscal stress of Virginia’s counties and cities. The commission also publishes a catalog of state and federal mandates imposed on local governments, reports on local government utilization of cash proffers, on municipal boundary change actions, and more.

The commission investigates, analyzes, and makes findings of fact as to the probable effect of any proposed boundary change, annexation, or governmental transition action on the people residing in that area. In addition, the COLG provides technical assistance to localities and state agencies on the state’s boundary change and governmental transition processes.

For Susan Williams, one role of the commission is particularly important. “The decisions made in Richmond can sometimes disparately impact localities, because of their different fiscal conditions and economic and socioeconomic circumstances, so it is important for state agencies and for the General Assembly to be aware of how these decisions play out in the localities, and the commission helps provide them with that information.”

The COLG also oversees executive agency assessments of state mandates imposed on local governments, and works with localities to determine and document the fiscal impact of proposed legislation.

MANDATE ASSESSMENTS

The current mandate assessment process that has been in existence since 1994 is complicated, and does not give a true picture of the fiscal impact on local governments of state mandates.

The current process requires agencies to conduct initial assessments–and reassessments–on the local government mandates they administer. The CLOG is taking steps to streamline that process.

A mandates assessment taskforce that is composed of state agency and local government representatives, and VML and VACo staff, have formed to make recommendations on the mandates assessment process. In October 2006, the group provided 19 recommendations to the COLG, and they were approved.

The new process will eliminate the need for reassessment of existing mandates that were initially assessed or reassessed through April 2007, unless the commission requests reassessment.

The commission will consider input from state agencies, local governments, interest groups and the public as to which mandates should be reassessed, and will adopt an assessment schedule which must be approved by the Secretary of Commerce and Trade and the Governor.

Beginning this year, the mandates catalog will be published in October. Under the revised assessment process, a new mandate classification–“state fiscal preemption” –and a modified classification–“ nondiscretionary conditions of aid”–will be included. Additionally, the new approach will focus on the fiscal impact of new and newly identified mandates after they have been in effect for two years, with the goal of determining which mandates may be altered or eliminated without interrupting services or threatening public health, safety, or welfare.

Local governments, working with state agencies, will be able to provide their fiscal analysis of these mandates using a new Internet based system.

“The change in focus of the assessment process is important because unnecessary mandates imposed on localities deplete local governments’ limited resources, contribute to fiscal stress and detract from other needs and priorities,” said Susan Williams. “The COLG will be working with the Governor’s office to finalize the process and new policies and procedures for agency assessments of mandates.”

“It is important that we accurately evaluate the impact that mandates place on local governments. The new system should accomplish this goal,” added John Kines.

THE COMMISSSION TODAY

Even after more than 20 years, the General Assembly continues to recognize the commission’s viable role in governmental relations in the Commonwealth. During the 2007 General Assembly session, the commission was tasked with another responsibility in this area–through House Bill 3202, the new transportation bill.

HB 3202, among its many changes, creates Urban Transportation Service Districts (UTSDs), that may be established for the construction and maintenance of roads in certain urban counties as defined under the bill–Chesterfield, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Spotsylvania, and Stafford. The deadline for a locality to establish a UTSD and adopt an impact ordinance is December 31, 2008.

HB 3202 provides that the local governing body of an urban county and the Commonwealth Transportation Board must agree upon the boundaries of any UTSD. Should the parties disagree on the boundaries, they may request that the COLG serve as mediator.

Susan Williams explained, “This resource is one that may or may not ever be utilized. But that this new responsibility was given to us is a direct reflection on the reputation the commission has built as a mediator in intergovernmental relations throughout the past 20 plus years.”

COMMISSION STAFF

In addition to Susan Williams, the COLG is made up of three other paid staff members.

Principal Economist Steve Ziony has been with the commission for 22 years. During his work with the COLG, he has produced 19 annual reports examining the fiscal capacity, effort, and stress of Virginia’s counties and cities. He has also conducted time series analyses of local revenues and operating expenditures across the municipalities and counties of the state, as well as a study of the “double taxation” issue facing incorporated towns throughout the Commonwealth.

Administrative Assistant Barbara Johnson has been providing vital support to the commission for more than 15 years. A third position–senior policy analyst, is currently vacant. “I’m very much looking forward to filling the senior policy analyst position and getting the Commission fully staffed so we can move forward,” said Susan Williams. “I would like to see the COLG become even more of a resource for localities and on local government issues in the future.”

Commissioner John Kines seconded, “Escalating growth in counties is blurring the differences that once existed between counties and cities, and cooperation among cities and counties will be essential to meet the challenges that the future will bring. I am hopeful the commission will continue to play a greater role in determining the relationships between counties and cities in Virginia.” For more information about the commission, visit:
http://www.dhcd.virginia.gov/Commissiononlocalgovernment/.

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