By Alex Bridges
Front Royal should act on a deal with Warren County and add the U.S. 522-340 corridor rather than involve the state legislature, says a town councilman.
"We've had that right since day one," Vice Mayor N. Shae Parker said by phone Thursday. "That's not the county's decision, it's the town's and it's time for the town to stand up to the county and say 'you're getting the lion's share of this.'"
An agreement between the county and town dating to 1998 and 1999 allows Front Royal, after seven years, to annex the corridor, Parker explained. The deal initially gave Warren County a needed source of revenue. While the county would lose some of that revenue through annexation or a boundary line adjustment, it still can collect levies on most taxes, according to Parker.
The councilman expressed hope elected leaders can reach a deal on the matter and avoid any legal battles.
The councilman said he planned to voice his concerns at the next Town Council meeting on Monday but decided to speak out after reading about the county's efforts to help Front Royal recoup revenue lost from the corridor. The proposal now appears dead on arrival and an alternative approach may lack support, at least from Parker.
Parker panned a proposal to change the town's charter that would let Front Royal divert some revenue collected through utilities to its general fund. The idea came after state legislators expressed pessimism over Warren County's proposal to seek increases in its meals and lodging taxes eyed as way to help the town recoup revenue lost by providing utilities to properties in the commercial-rich 522 corridor.
Now the councilman wants the town and county to return to the table and discuss possible annexation of the corridor. But Parker said he expects some controversy.
"I believe from the county's standpoint, yes it's probably contentious they would have to make some sacrifices," Parker said.
The agreement called for the town to extend water and sewer services outside its boundaries to the U.S. 522-340 corridor. Both governments, with the help of the Economic Development Authority, paid for the infrastructure improvements. The deal also called for the county to take over the management and funding of the Department of Parks and Recreation, the funding of the town's fire department and the responsibility for animal control, Parker noted.
Under the deal, the town also gave the property and deeds to more than 100 acres of land that contained millions of dollars in improvements. In return, the town agreed not to seek annexation of the corridor land for seven years.
Parker recalled that the agreement came about at a time when the county faced financial hardships. Town leaders saw the deal as a way to spur commercial growth in the corridor, and give the county a head start in collecting the revenue generated by the businesses.
But the county continued to reap the benefit of the corridor and over the course of years collected revenue that allowed it to grow, Parker noted. The county used the added revenue to pay for needed school facilities and other construction projects, according to Parker.
"We've given them 15 years," Parker said. "They've got their head start."
But the councilman noted he would rather see leaders discuss the matter and possibly seek a friendly boundary-line adjustment rather than through annexation and possibly the courts.
"The decision is not for them to choose whether or not the town annexes," Parker added. "The decision for them to choose is do you want to come to the table before it gets to that point and talk about how we can adjust it; what areas we can bring within the town, and I think it would behoove them to have that conversation before the town finally says we're not finding a solution to this, we're enacting our out clause, which is annexation."
The town lost a legal battle spurred by merchants over collection of meals tax in the corridor that resulted in a loss of approximately $700,000 a year. Warren County officials and the Board of Supervisors tried to come up with a remedy to help the town recoup the lost revenue. But in December, legislators expressed doubts that the General Assembly would approve any request by the county to increase its local taxing authority. Instead, Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, suggested the town amend its charter to allow it to divert some utilities revenue to its general fund.
Town Manager Steven Burke said Thursday council will discuss at a future meeting how to address the legislators' suggestion. Council has not yet discussed the idea as a whole.
Parker in a letter this week said this approach does not address problems in the original corridor agreement. The councilman questioned why the town would ask the legislature for special authority to redirect funds from one part of the budget to another when no other jurisdictions or utilities has that power.
The county would lose revenue it collects through the business professional occupancy licenses taxes, meals and lodging and a portion of sales. But the county would continue to collect real estate, machinery and tools levies and the remaining portion of sales.
Businesses in the corridor would benefit by paying BPOL taxes to only one locality. The owners of undeveloped parts of the corridor would benefit when the connection fee for water and sewer would be cut in half, according to Parker.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or email@example.com