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Independence Would Benefit Northern Virginia ...

Economic Gain, Many Drawbacks

<bt>Northern Virginia seceding from the rest of the state is not likely, but the idea makes for an interesting debate, according to a few Loudoun leaders.

The initial reaction to asking what Northern Virginia would look like if secession were to occur was a chuckle and sometimes a look of surprise. The 13 people who responded to the question said they were against secession and gave their reasons why.

Some still imagined what if, reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages of Northern Virginia becoming its own state.

“IN A GENERAL SENSE, it would be devastating financially for the remainder of the state, since much of the economic engine for the rest of the state is Northern Virginia,” said Edgar Hatrick, superintendent of schools for Loudoun County Public Schools. “Culturally, it would be devastating to the whole state. Our history is one history.”

West Virginia seceded from Virginia in 1863 to become the 35th state.

“They [the secessionists] claimed they were real government, and the government in Virginia was illegitimate,” said Mark Summers, director of education for the Loudoun Museum.

Summers said before the Civil War, secessionists complained about a lack of representation in the Lower House. They disliked the distance of Richmond from the area that is now West Virginia.

“CULTURALLY, we’re very different. West Virginia was made up mostly of small farmers. Slavery was legal, but not many people owned slaves,” Summers said, adding that West Virginia tended to be settled by mostly Germans and Scottish-Irish and the area of eastern Virginia by the English. Eastern Virginian residents typically did not own slaves, except for the plantation owners who also had the political power. West Virginia was against slavery for that reason.

“It was a cultural thing, too, because they saw themselves as different than the people in the east,” Summers said.

Likewise, Northern Virginia and the southern part of the state are culturally different, said Summers, who was born in Richmond and now lives in Leesburg.

Northern Virginia is socially liberal and has a high level of immigration, while the rest of the state is conservative and has an older culture similar to the south, Summers said. Richmond represents the old Virginia, whereas Northern Virginia represents the new Virginia of a Washington, D.C. suburb, he said.

This new Virginia would become a “huge city” if Virginia were to secede, said Randy Davis, curator at the Loudoun Museum.

“there’s no real agriculture left in the area that encompasses Northern Virginia,” Davis said, adding that a large portion of Prince William and Loudoun counties is still rural. “It would be suburban hell, that’s what it would be. It would be economically thriving, but there wouldn’t be any diversity in the culture.”

Loudoun supervisor James “Jim” Burton agreed secession would financially benefit Northern Virginia, though he does not support the idea.

“We have been a cash cow for the state legislature to fund services in other parts of the state,” said Burton (I-Mercer). “If we were to secede from the state, the level of service local government could provide to its citizens would go up dramatically and we could lower taxes.”

LOUDOUN COUNTY PAYS more in state taxes than is returned as a state transfer. In 2002, Loudoun residents paid $458.3 million in state income taxes, of which the state returned $102.9 million to the county. In 2003, residents are expected to pay $550 million for about the same in returns, which is estimated at $103 million.

Income taxes, sales taxes and other state aid fund 14 percent of the county’s general fund revenue, which in fiscal year 2003 is $862.7 million as approved April 1. The state returns 1 to 2 percent of the 4.5 percent county residents and visitors pay in sales tax.

A higher return from sales and income taxes means the county could pay cash for the six-year $900 million Capital Improvements Program, Burton said. The county could pay the debt in two years with the $400 million a year extra it received back from the state, he said.

“WE COULD DO an awful lot and provide for tax relief at the same time. … Even if we had 50 percent of what we produced, that would be a big help,” said Chairman Scott York (R-At Large).

The county could pay down its debt service, build more roads and provide more funds for school and capital improvement projects, York said.

“Richmond is not fulfilling their responsibility to provide the infrastructure that has created the economic growth in Northern Virginia that benefits the state of Virginia,” he said. “Richmond is simply stealing our revenue and not returning it home.”

County administrator Kirby Bowers said an issue for Northern Virginia is needing more state support. “[We] don’t get our fair share,” he said.

Bowers said if Northern Virginia were to secede, a move he does not support, Loudoun County could improve infrastructure and transportation at the same time as cutting the tax rate.

“the fact that we could keep more revenue here means all taxes could be reduced — income taxes, sales taxes and property taxes — by significant amounts,” Burton said. “We could lower every tax there is and get rid of some.”

Bowers said as a separate jurisdiction, Northern Virginia could tailor the tax structure to meet the region’s needs. “We have a 1950s' tax structure, and that needs to change,” he said.

Virginia as a state needs to rely less on property taxes and instead revamp the income tax to match the current economy, since the taxing system is based on a machinery-based economy when Virginia relied on agriculture and manufacturing. “We would match our laws and regulations to match our needs in Northern Virginia,” he said.

ONE OF THOSE NEEDS is improving the county’s transportation system.

Summers said secession would allow Northern Virginia to speed up building roads.

“Generally speaking, voters in the rest of the state have voted down a lot of projects that would have given some of these highways to Northern Virginia,” Summers said. “Anytime people in the rest of the state feel a certain initiative, tax or policy is going to benefit the Northern Virginia area, they will vote against it. ‘Why should I care about that transportation problem. I don’t see it there.’”

A secession would allow Northern Virginians to be closer to the state capital.

“It would certainly have the advantage of being geographically closer than Richmond. More often, the closer government is to the services it delivers, the more ownership there is,” said Ben Mays, budget officer for Loudoun County.

“I DON’T THINK getting smaller would be a solution to Northern Virginia’s problems. If there’s going to be a solution to our problems in transportation and housing, it has to be regional,” said Douglas Foard, museum director at the Loudoun Museum. “Getting smaller doesn’t make any sense. Just imagine us trying to maintain this road system on four or five counties alone,” he said, adding that transportation is funded mostly with state and federal funds. “We don’t have the resources to do it.”

Burton said secession would not do anything to solve the transportation problem. “It doesn’t matter if the money is there or not. The Clean Air Act is the factor,” he said. “Until we figure out how to clean up our air, there won’t be any new projects.”

Secession might boost Loudoun’s educational system.

“The pros of it is that the money in Northern Virginia would stay in Northern Virginia,” said Joseph Vogric, school board chairman, adding that the money could be invested in transit, road construction and school capital projects and school programs.

“The local tax burden for education is higher. … If you’re in a wealthy county, the state only pays 11 percent of the cost of educating here, and in some localities, the state pays over 80 percent,” Vogric said. “The more affluent localities and wealthy areas do not receive the proportionate funding.”

HATRICK SAID if the county received half of the income tax it pays to the state, the School Board would not have to consider making cuts to the 2003 budget. “We would be able to reduce class size and do more of the things that are the goals of the school board,” Hatrick said. “The only thing that prevents us from smaller class size than we have is lacking funding to provide those classrooms and the things that have to go into them. … If you have more to spend on education then you can do all these things. There’s a high commitment to quality education in Loudoun County. As with many services, you get what you pay for.”

Even so, “our local school system would look as it does,” Hatrick said. “We’re proud of what we have locally. Most of what we have is the result of a local economic effort.”

Secession would have its drawbacks, especially for the southern part of the state.

“It would be a tremendous loss to the rest of the state because there’s so much wealth in the Northern Virginia area that pays for services. The southwest corner would suffer tremendously,” Burton said, adding that the south does not have enough economic support for its residents. “Their education systems would take giant steps backwards. The majority of funding comes from the state. Here, the majority of funding comes from the locality.”

Mays agreed.

“It really would be disastrous for the rest of the state. Northern Virginia really has been the economic engine that has driven the rest of the state for the past decade. I think the rest of the state would have a hard time fiscally,” Mays said. “We generate more than we consume. In any government budget and any business, there are parts of an organization that generates more than they consume.”

“It would hurt the economy,” Summers said. “Northern Virginia is the wealthiest part of the state as far as jobs and large corporations. Without that tax base, there wouldn’t be a lot of money going into Richmond.”

“We’re part of the fabric of the Commonwealth,” said Randy Collins, president of the Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce. “Other parts of the state would lose a significant amount of revenue through taxes and different things generated by this part of the state. The rest of the state would also lose out on the notoriety from Northern Virginia. There are a lot of things that happen in Northern Virginia that put Northern Virginia on the map.”

SECESSION COULD HURT the chances post-secondary students would have for attending in-state schools in southern Virginia.

“A majority of Northern Virginia college students go to colleges outside the area. They would have to pay more tuition being out of state,” Summers said.

“The major state service we get is the university system,” Mays said. “It’s a great university system, one of the best state university systems in the country. Public universities and colleges rank high for quality and value for the tuition dollar.”

“It’s a ridiculous notion. It could never happen,” Davis said. “You are more likely to see Washington, D.C. become a state than Northern Virginia. If D.C. were to become a state, it would probably annex part of Northern Virginia.”

Clerk of the Circuit Court Gary Clemens agreed.

“While I recognize that Northern Virginia needs better recognition in Richmond and as part of the General Assembly, I don’t think that seceding is the solution,” Clemens said. “It’s certainly not going to make our lives any easier and it’s certainly not going to address some of the issues we have in Northern Virginia. I think teamwork, communication, coordination and partnerships is the way to go to build bridges and to ensure the future of Northern Virginia and the citizens of Northern Virginia are properly accommodated by the Commonwealth.”

Clemens said, “It’s obviously necessary for us to continue to press the General Assembly and the folks in Richmond to have more resources available to Northern Virginia.”

Clemens, who has lived in Virginia his entire life, said he is “a proud Virginian.” “I can’t ever think or fathom of the idea of seceding from our Commonwealth. If anyone would ever suggest it, I would fight it. If this becomes another state, I would move wherever Virginia is.”

“VIRGINIA IS A FAMILY. In a family you will have disputes and disagreements. The last thing you want to do is break it apart,” Clemens said. “We need to strive to meet those family needs.”

“There’s no reason for us to create a state bureaucracy in Northern Virginia to duplicate the state bureaucracy we already have. We would trade one set of problems for another,” said Warren Geurin, Loudoun school board member.

“The downside would be the replication of the bureaucracy to run the state government,” Vogric said.