Virginia First Cities Executive Director Kelly Harris-Braxton recently provided a presentation to the Emporia City Council advocating the municipality join its coalition of Virginia cities.
VFC is an organization promoting city-specific issues in a state structure dividing city and county jurisdictions. Braxton-Harris said city governments have different needs and concerns than their county counterparts.
“I used to work for the City of Richmond,” Braxton-Harris said. “I was a legislative director, and I would go to the general assembly every year, bringing these bills. Some things they passed, but on a lot of them they said to come back another time.”
The VFC was created in 1999 when a group of city managers came together to promote city-specific interests. Braxton-Harris said cities rely heavily on real estate taxes, which are traditionally higher than in counties. The higher taxes put city leaders in an awkward position.
The VFC lobbies the general assembly each year to advocate for city-specific needs.
“State funding levels and formulas tend to be unrealistic,” Braxton-Harris said. “There is a fiscal overburden in our cities because of higher levels of fiscal stress and higher levels of poverty. What we do as Virginia First Cities is we provide strategic lobbying for Virginia First Cities as a whole.”
Braxton-Harris said the VFC is promoting urban economic development, taxation, highway transportation funding formulas, at-risk birth, K-12 education, public safety funding, and community wealth building as issues the group tackles in lobbying the state government.
Laura Bateman, VFC legislative director, said the group was successful with several lobbying efforts during the 2019 general assembly session.
She cited an additional $1 million added for the Enterprise Zone Program and an additional $1 million in funding for the Virginia Industrial Revitalization Fund.
Sixteen cities are currently members of the VFC. The population variance in members is significant. Norfolk and Richmond have more than 200,000 residents in their municipalities. Lexington has a population of a little more than 7,000.
Emporia City Councilman Woody Harris said a lot of the programs by the Virginia Association of Counties (Vaco), Virginia Municipal League (VML) and VFC tend to overlap. He said VML seems to be off its game lately.
“Many critics of VML over the years have said it’s a challenge to be all things to all people,” he said. “There are cities, there are towns, there are urban counties, all members of VML. There have been a few instances over the years, annexation being one of them, where there were divergent interests that made it difficult and stressful internally to their organization to function effectively.”
Harris said VFC has members he would rather see Emporia be less alike and asked how Emporia would benefit by becoming a VFC member.
“We are able to focus on creating policies and programs that you can use,” Braxton-Harris said. “We are trying to address the fiscal overburden all cities are facing. The majority of our work is creating programs.”
Other members of the VFC include Charlottesville, Danville, Hampton, Harrisonburg, Hopewell, Lynchburg, Martinsville, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Staunton, Williamsburg, and Winchester.
The pitch for Emporia to join the VFC team is complete. The next step locally is the City Council pondering what it heard and deciding if the fit is beneficial to Emporia.