Brookings Institute Analysts’ Letter to the Editor


Your thought-provoking summertime editorial in which you propose a land and elected official swap with Fairfax County is fraught with concerns.  But the premise is exactly right. 

I was part of a policy team at the Brookings Institution that studied the relationship between annexation patterns and the fiscal health of cities.  We found that a city's ability to annex land from its surrounding county is a primary determinant of its fiscal health – more important to a city's bond rating (a sign of fiscal health) than poverty levels or household income.  Put simply, cities with greater abilities to annex have much higher bond rating scores.  Intuitively this makes sense.  An expanding city can maintain and grow its tax base and most do it eagerly for just that reason.

So what's the deal with Falls Church?  Well, Virginia is a special case.  We have our unique (some would say weird) system of independent cities, and we have Draconian state annexation laws dating back to the 1970s that practically prohibit the commonwealth's cities from incorporating surrounding land.  Not to put too fine a point on it but annexation in Virginia is extraordinarily hard to do.  It is more likely that a city in Virginia will lose its independent status—as Clifton Forge and South Boston both have this decade—than undertake any meaningful annexation.

Nevertheless, the proposal you laid out is provocative.  The fact of the matter is that it is not the 1970s anymore and we need 21 st century solutions.  Where should we start?  How about better interjurisdictional cooperation, instead of law suits?  Or economic growth agreements or revenue sharing, like Charlottesville and Albemarle?  Or consolidation of services?

Instead of hand wringing over the details of the proposal, let's look at the big picture:  we are the little fish in a pond filled with a lot of really big fish.  When we consider Falls Church's future, we need to keep this in mind before bold ideas like this are brushed off the table.

Robert Puentes