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Arlington: Secession or Success?

County officials, leaders, say idea tempts, but few see real solution.

What if Northern Virginia seceded? What if Arlington joined neighboring counties, and left the Commonwealth of Virginia?

It might seem like an easy sell, at first. Arlington is more Democratic than the rest of the state – in the last two elections, Democratic candidates have gotten about twice as many Arlington votes as Republicans, whether for state, local or national seats.

Surrounding counties are not as staunchly liberal, or Democratic. But Del. Robert Brink (D-48) said they were still closer to Arlington than to Southside Virginia.

"The entire Northern Virginia region is a good deal more moderate than rest of state," Brink said. "There are a number of people downstate who would say ‘Good riddance," [if the north seceded]."

But Brink and most other local leaders rejected the concept of secession. Some called the idea disastrous.

"It would probably make the West Bank look calm," said David Foster, Arlington School Board member.

But others welcomed the idea of secession. "I wouldn’t miss losing the Dillon Rule," said Jim Pebley, current president of the Arlington Civic Federation. "As long as we don’t have to take back the District of Columbia, I’m OK with it." The Dillon Rule mandates that localities and counties in Virginia have only power specifically granted to them by the General Assembly.

Libby Garvey, another school board member, said she understood the appeal of secession as an idea – a quick fix to hangups in Richmond.

"But it’s the practical details that make it hard," Garvey said. "It would take a tremendous effort to work those out, and I would rather see go into building bridges within the current state."

<b>THERE ARE OBVIOUS</b> benefits to leaving the Commonwealth, chief among them being money.

According to the Virginia Department of Taxation, in 2000, Arlington generated $4.9 billion of taxable income, sending $256 million in income tax to the state, almost 5 percent of the $5.4 billion collected by the state that year. In total, Arlington sent $301.9 million in income, sales, gas and license taxes to the state, funding just under 3 percent of the state’s $10.8 billion budget.

In return, the county received $54.5 million from the state.

In 2001, Arlington sent $291.6 million to the state, again a 4.8 percent share of the nearly $6.1 billion collected by the state. Both the state collection and Arlington’s share increased by 13 percent over 2000. At the same time, the state sent back $53.9 million to the county – a decrease of 1 percent from the year before.

Certainly, nearby counties and cities are more sympathetic to Arlington concerns than Richmond. Arlington schools see a much higher percentage of non-English speaking students and low-income students than Southside schools, Foster said.

"We do talk to our colleagues, officials and staff, in neighboring jurisdictions fairly regularly," he said. "We have a lot of issues in common, so we could meet a sympathetic ear."

"We would certainly start getting back a bigger portion of tax revenues," Pebley said. "We carry a lot of the state."

<b>STATE FUNDING IS</b> not the primary engine for Arlington’s schools, or the county government. State funds account for only 14 percent of next year’s proposed school budget, and only 9 percent of proposed county budget for next year.

But the reality is more than just money. Arlington sends students to state universities, and prisoners to Virginia prisons.

"Charlottesville, Williamsburg and Blacksburg are all below the Rapahannock," Foster said. "Those would be big losses, no offense to George Mason."

Out-of-state tuition to those universities could be crippling to local families, Linda Hutchinson said. Hutchinson, director of counseling at Yorktown High School, said many of the graduating seniors at the school end up in the state university system.

"It’s not just UVA, it’s William & Mary, it’s Madison, it’s Longwood. The state university system is well used," she said. "It would be a real financial hardship."

If she lost the option of sending students to universities downstate, she said, that would place much of the burden on GMU.

"We have a large number that do attend George Mason, but if it was the only school? It would be real interesting to see how that worked out," Hutchinson said.

"It’s doing well right now, but GMU would be overwhelmed on its own," Foster said.

<b>"IT’S NOT ONLY</b> the universities," Brink said. "We export a disproportionate number of students, but also a disproportionate number of convicted criminals" to southern Virginia.

Officials at the Arlington County Jail didn’t have exact numbers. But each year there are between 7,000 and 8,000 cases in the county’s circuit court, where sentences could mean serving time in a state facility. The county jail can accommodate 609 inmates.

"We would lose the regional prison," Pebley said, which could mean a loss of some local revenue. "We send prisoners down there. That frees up beds in jail, and the state gives us $20 a prisoner a day for state prisoners we house. The feds pay $80 a day."

The region would also need to pay for a local maximum security prison – currently, the closest high security prisons are in Sussex and Augusta counties, and the state’s toughest maximum security prisons are in southwestern Virginia.

"I wouldn’t be fond of putting a maximum security prison in the park across from my house," Brink said.

<b>THERE WOULD BE</b> still other losses under secession: access to the Chesapeake Bay, human services funding from the state, parks and recreation. In fact, the apparatus necessary to replicate what Richmond currently provides is enough to convince some of Arlington’s officials that the county is better off in the Commonwealth.

"Obviously, we send a good deal more in terms of sales and income tax to Richmond than we get back," Brink said.

But the costs of secession outweigh the lure of increased tax revenues, he said.

"Even though we would pickup state tax revenues, the cost to maintain statewide systems, not just colleges, not just prisons, but human services … It costs less to take part in a statewide system, in the economies of scale," Brink said.

Pebley admitted there were parts of the Commonwealth of Virginia he would be sorry to leave. "I would miss a large portion of the US Navy," centered in Norfolk, he said, "and what they bring to the table, as the other great economic center. I’m from the Navy, so I love a good Navy town."

Still, he welcomed the idea – the politicking in Richmond, he said, was enough of a turnoff to drive almost anyone from the Commonwealth. "What’s gone on down in Richmond is not only frightfully dull, but the straits we’ve managed to get ourselves in – well, it certainly leads you to believe in gridlock," he said.

Foster agreed that Arlington, and the rest of Northern Virginia, need a smoother relationship with Richmond. But the state’s fractious regions need to learn to cooperate, rather than splinter off.

"After all, the last time we seceded, didn’t work out too well," he said.

Secession wouldn’t really solve the problem, Garvey said. The four counties in Northern Virginia are tied to closely to the rest of the state – secession would just add a layer of bureaucracy to the negotiations between the two.

"I don’t think we can go it alone," she said. "No man is an island, no community is an island, and so we would continue to be affected by the rest of state."