Sunday, February 24, 2013

A great community needs great leaders

Christian Trejbal

Recent columns

From the RoundTable blog

When presidents deliver their state of the union addresses, they often declare something along the lines of, "The state of our union is strong." President Obama went with "stronger" this year.

I'm no president, but for the last few years, the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce's Leadership New River Valley class has asked me to deliver my own version of the state of the community. I did so on Thursday, and the state of the community is meh.

A couple of dozen up-and-coming community leaders mostly from businesses and nonprofits enrolled in this year's class. They will spend 10months learning more about their community and developing the skills to make a difference. Next year, their names no doubt will pop up in local news stories.

Montgomery County possesses tremendous potential that goes unrealized because its government currently lacks strong leadership and its residents are Balkanized. Compared to other Virginia communities, the county fails to invest in the things that improve quality of life and make the county competitive in attracting businesses and new residents.

The question is what sort of community do residents want and what are they willing to pay for it? When it comes to government services, money and quality of life intertwine.

One flashpoint was last year's fight over property taxes and raising funds to pay for new schools in Blacksburg and Riner. Too often, the debate devolved into pitched camps of rural county residents against Blacksburg residents. Christiansburg remains something of a middle child in the county, quietly doing its own thing, though even it is being dragged into school debates by supervisors now.

That sort of embarrassing public airing of bitter resentment turns off potential employers and workers. They can find plenty of other places that support their children's education more seriously and communally.

It's hard to convince the best workers to come to a community that spends less than the state average per student in its schools and far less than other communities with universities in their midst.

In the 2012 fiscal year that ended June 30, Montgomery County rebounded from recent revenue declines. It brought in $179 million from local, state and federal sources.

Yet it continues to lag behind places like Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, Roanoke, Roanoke County, Fairfax County and Albemarle County. Montgomery County had $1,011 to spend per person. The average Virginia county had $1,453.

The corollary is that those other communities have more money to spend on core services and the sorts of things that make a community a great place to live.

Don't get me wrong. Montgomery County is fine, but fine is not good enough when competing for economic vitality. If the county aspires to nothing better, it will stagnate.

Schools are not the only things that matter, either. Workers and businesses care about other amenities like parks, recreation and libraries. Montgomery County spent $34 per capita on them. Charlottesville spent $264. Guess which one has better facilities?

Montgomery County no longer is the sleepy rural community with a college secluded in the hills. It has grown up and has the potential to become a bustling economic hub in Southwest Virginia, a home of high-tech synergy.

Like young adults who grow up, the county must begin to take its finances more seriously. It can no longer rely on Mommy Richmond and Daddy Washington to throw money this way.

In 1990, more money came from Richmond than was raised locally. Now more than half of all revenue is raised locally, and that will increase in 2013 now that a 12-cent property tax increase to pay for schools has kicked in.

Still, the portion is far below places like Northern Virginia, where localities raise 75 percent of their money from themselves. Population growth there has granted increasing political clout, and the people who live there have started to wonder why they are sending so much money downstate where the people will not commit as fully to funding their own services.

Nor are all barriers to prosperity financial. The General Assembly has done plenty to scare off educated workers in recent years. Young progressive professionals, gays and non-Christians must think twice before moving to or remaining in the commonwealth.

That is beyond local control, but the county can improve its chances in the economic beauty pageant. It starts with leaders who will bring together diverse communities within its borders and help them recognize that the entire county succeeds or fails together.

Leaders like the ones in the chamber class. When they graduate, they could change things. They could become town council members, supervisors, school board members or business leaders. Leadership is not an end in itself. It matters what those graduates do with their skills and their positions.

Montgomery County is counting on them, because if it continues to coast and display internal strife, the commonwealth and the nation will leave it behind.

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