Manassas Park (shown in yellow) started as a subdivision in Prince William County 60 years ago. The community incorporated as a town in 1957. It annexed 600 acres in 1974, increasing the town’s size by over 50%, and then chose to become a city in 1975, just before the General Assembly blocked that option.
Manassas (shown in green) also converted from town to city status in 1975.
As a town, residents were citizens of Prince William County. They voted in both the town and county elections, and paid town and county taxes. Becoming a city meant Manassas Park and Manassas were completely independent of the county. Their taxes would be kept local to provide local services, and not be used to construct schools in fast-growing eastern Prince William near I-95.
Manassas Park has stayed a small (2.6 square mile) residential community with little commercial property. The city has sought to create a mixed use development next to the Virginia Railway Express station, but most of the ground floor retail space has remained vacant. Property taxes from homeowners must finance government operations, and the city has the highest property tax rate in Virginia.
Yesterday the Washington Post reported that there will be three open seats in the November election for city council, but only one person filed to run. The story called it a “stark example of the civic apathy that experts say is growing more common in some of America’s smaller cities and towns.”
So Manassas Park has relatively high taxes, and relatively low citizen interest in governance. Should the city abandon its charter and return to town status, as Bedford, Clifton Forge, and South Boston have done?
That would spread the cost for schools across all the residents of Prince William. The property tax rate on homeowners, without the cost of services shifted to the county, could be lowered if the city became a town.
Schools would be managed by the county, but responsibility for land use planning could be retained by the town council. Zoning decisions would be made by town officials.
On the other hand, “identity” as an independent city is different. Manassas Park is 37% Hispanic, while Prince William County officials have made headlines by their opposition to immigration.
Choosing to abandon the status of city, one of 38 in Virginia, would be an emotional decision as well as an analytical exercise. The three cities which made that choice were in greater financial distress than Manassas Park.