More than three months into a new fiscal year without a budget in place, the Pound Town Council continues to struggle with making ends meet.
The council doesn’t have a lot of money to work with — less than $600,000 for its general fund budget and another $1.58 million designated for the town’s water and sewer systems — but that’s not the problem. The town is trying to sustain services even as demand for them shrinks. As with the rest of Southwest Virginia, Pound needs to adopt a different mindset. If writing a budget, the Town Council needs to compensate for loss of residents and property tax revenue by cutting services and expenses.
To say that Southwest Virginia is in decline is an understatement.
A University of Virginia study five years ago found that, in the four years since the 2010 Census, six Southwest Virginia counties and the city of Bristol, Virginia, lost a combined 2,800 residents. Wise County recorded the state’s greatest decline, shrinking by more than 1,200 people. Its population fell 3% from 41,452 to 40,197, according to the report.
But in the years since, the decline has deepened substantially.
In 2010, the combined population of Scott, Lee and Wise counties was 90,216. Last year, it was estimated at 82,930 — a loss of 7,826 residents, or 8.6%. Scott lost 1,611 residents over eight years, or 8.9%. Lee lost 2,146 residents, or 8.5%. Wise went from 41,452 residents in 2010 to 37,383 last year, a drop of 4,069 residents or 9.8%.
Pound has lost about 100 residents since the 2010 Census, with the population declining from 1,037 to an estimated 937 last year. No doubt, when the 2020 Census numbers come in next year, Pound, and the region, will show further declines.
At its most recent meeting, members of the Pound Town Council discussed a budget that allocates 62% of its total to operate a police department of six officers with a chief of police that one council member said wants yet another officer. “I think we are operating a police department that is too large for our town,” Councilman Marley Green said.
There’s no question about that. The town of Appalachia, with half again as many residents as Pound, has four officers and is expected to sign a Wise County Board of Supervisors-approved agreement where it pays the sheriff’s department $150,000 plus a $47,000 state law enforcement grant to replace its police department with three sheriff’s deputies. Pound should do likewise.
The decline in Southwest Virginia isn’t confined to Lee, Wise and Scott. Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington and Wythe counties all have lost population since the 2010 Census, even as the rest of the state has grown.
The reasons are varied, from the collapse of the coal industry to declines in agriculture and forestry. There is some hope for a localized turnaround with the casino project at Bristol, Virginia, but in the meantime the region’s political bodies must face reality and budget accordingly.
“We’ve got to raise revenue,” Green told other council members. Raising taxes on a shrinking tax base only contributes to taxpayer flight.