The small town of Pound in Wise County, Virginia, has been struggling for years with financial and governance issues. Now, the town faces a crucial decision: whether to reform its administration and operations, or lose its charter and become part of the county.
How Pound got into trouble
Pound was incorporated in 1947 as a coal mining town, but its population and economy declined over the years as the coal industry waned. The town currently has about 900 residents, down from over 1,300 in 2000.
The town’s troubles came to a head in 2022, when it was revealed that the town owed over $2.5 million to various creditors, including the Internal Revenue Service, the Virginia Retirement System, and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The town also faced lawsuits from former employees and vendors who claimed they were not paid for their services.
The town’s finances were so dire that it could not afford to pay its staff, maintain its infrastructure, or provide basic services such as trash collection, water, and sewer. The town council declared a fiscal emergency and asked the state for help.
The state’s intervention and ultimatum
In response to the town’s plea, the state appointed a fiscal distress consultant, Fred Parker, to oversee the town’s budget and operations. Parker worked with the town council and staff to develop a recovery plan, which included cutting expenses, increasing revenues, and negotiating with creditors.
The recovery plan also required the town to adopt a new charter, which would reduce the size of the town council from seven to five members, eliminate the town manager position, and give more authority to the mayor. The new charter was approved by the town’s voters in a referendum in November 2023.
However, the state was not satisfied with the town’s progress and accountability. In February 2023, Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, introduced a bill in the House of Delegates that would revoke the town’s charter if it did not meet certain benchmarks by July 1, 2024. The bill was passed by the House and the Senate, and signed by Gov. Ralph Northam in March 2023.
The bill stipulates that the town must submit monthly financial reports to the state, pay off its debts, comply with all state and federal laws and regulations, and maintain adequate services and infrastructure. If the town fails to meet these conditions, it will cease to exist as a municipality and become part of Wise County.
The town’s response and prospects
The town’s officials and residents have mixed reactions to the state’s ultimatum. Some see it as a wake-up call and a motivation to improve the town’s situation. Others see it as an unfair and harsh punishment that disregards the town’s history and identity.
The town’s mayor, George Dean, said he is optimistic that the town can meet the state’s requirements and keep its charter. He said the town has made significant progress in reducing its debt, increasing its revenue, and restoring its services. He also said the town is working on attracting new businesses and residents, and developing new projects such as an energy park and a trail system.
However, some town council members and residents are skeptical that the town can achieve the state’s goals in time. They said the town still faces many challenges and uncertainties, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the fluctuating coal market, and the potential lawsuits from creditors. They also said the town lacks the resources and support from the county and the state to address its problems.
The town’s fate will be determined by July 1, 2024, when the state will evaluate the town’s performance and decide whether to revoke its charter or not. The town’s officials and residents hope that the town can overcome its difficulties and prove its viability, or else face the loss of its autonomy and identity.