By Danielle Nadler & Renss Greene
One week before this year’s General Assembly session begins, feathers already are being ruffled over a bill that would allow the Town of Leesburg to become an independent city.
Following a years-long request from Leesburg Town Council members, Del. J. Randall Minchew (R-10) submitted legislation that would permit Virginia’s largest town, at more than 47,000 people, to transition to city status if it so desired.
If Leesburg were to become a city, it would act as a separate entity from the county. Generally, city residents would not pay county taxes or receive county services.
For several years, Town Council members have wanted to study the financial impact of becoming the City of Leesburg, but a state moratorium blocks towns with populations more than 40,000 from receiving city charters. Minchew’s bill, HB 192, would grant an exception to that moratorium.
“They didn’t want to spend all this time and money studying the possibility if there was no legislative vehicle to allow them to become a city,” Minchew said in an interview Wednesday.
Loudoun supervisors made their consternation at the idea of a City of Leesburg known at the first meeting of their term Wednesday. Leesburg is Loudoun’s county seat, and Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said an independent Leesburg would cause the county to look differently at county projects within the town, including the planned courthouse expansion.
“If they want to be be their own entity … then we have to rethink the county assets that we’re placing into the town, since it’s not us,” agreed Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn). “But here’s a bigger observation: I think the Town Council needs to do some back-of-the-envelope math and be careful what they’re asking for.”
Buona estimated education alone would cost Leesburg $130 million each year, well over the town’s annual budget.
“Most cities in the commonwealth are able to offer a lower tax rate to their residents than the double taxes that are currently paid by individuals who live in towns like Leesburg,” countered former Leesburg mayor and newly sworn-in Supervisor Kristen Umstattd (D-Leesburg). She has shown interest for several years in exploring the idea of transitioning the town to a city. “So my suspicion is that after a study period, then they will decide not to go forward with this, but they did want the opportunity to actually engage in a study.”
During the Town Council’s legislative dinner in November, the then-mayor said she and former Town Manager John Wells had made a trip to the City of Fairfax and were impressed with the model the city used, whereby it was able to contract out schools and social services funding and oversight to Fairfax County. The city boasts a lower tax rate and better services than Fairfax County, it was pointed out.
“It’s a model Leesburg should look at,” Umstattd said.
The Board of Supervisors did not vote on a position Wednesday, but Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said it would appear on the next board meeting agenda.
Of his bill, Minchew, a Leesburg resident, explained that he only wanted to free up the Town Council to study the idea. But he stressed, “I’m not still not ready to support Leesburg becoming a city. I think Leesburg fits very well as part of Loudoun County, and being a city most certainly is a break away.”
Reporter Kara Clark Rodriguez contributed to this report.