Town or City? In Virginia, there’s a HUGE Difference!

Town of Blacksburg, Virginia (Population 42,620) Photo courtesy: Smash the Iron Cage
Town of Blacksburg, Virginia (Population 42,620)
Photo courtesy: Smash the Iron Cage

In the United States, as a general rule of thumb a city is simply a larger version of a town, most often being more densely populated than a town and generally serving as the seat of the host county’s government.

Often, residents can substitute either “city” or “town” with the other and very little change is made in describing the power or function of the locality being mentioned.

However, if you live in the Commonwealth of Virginia, you might want to be more careful the next time you may be inclined to use these terms interchangeably, as the differences in the Old Dominion are about as distinct as the difference between night and day.

Unlike most everywhere else in the nation, in Virginia cities are completely independent and autonomous of any county government, meaning that though they are often centered directly in the heart of a county, they are considered independent and function as a county-equivalent and it’s been this way since 1871.

In Virginia, cities are responsible for their own court system, school system, tax collection and all the other basic functions of county government, whereas Virginia towns function largely as cities do elsewhere, encouraging tourism, providing an extra layer of law enforcement protection, and offering curbside trash collection and street lighting.

Because of the many additional responsibilities communities face when acting as an Independent City, several city governments in Virginia have struggled financially; Over the past quarter-century there has been a growing trend among Virginia cities to move toward voluntarily revoking their status as an independent and sovereign authority, opting instead to revert to a town status inside the host county — placing the burden of managing a school system, courts and dozens of other governmental responsibilities to the county.  South Boston successfully did this 1995, as did Clifton Forge in 2001 and Bedford in 2013.

Interestingly, population plays far less of a determining factor regarding whether a community is a city or a town in Virginia than it does elsewhere.  The Town of Leesburg has a population of 49,496 and the Town of Blacksburg has 43,985 residents, while the City of Norton has only 3,939 residents, the City of Emporia has a population of 5,496 and the City of Covington has only 5,658 residents… Putting this into perspective, the Town of Leesburg has 12.5-times the population of the City of Norton!

Is it a city or a town?  Well, the answer to this question may determine just how much you’re paying in taxes, how well your school systems are functioning and whether or not the local county courthouse is geographically located outside of its jurisdiction.  When it comes to complicating local government, the Commonwealth of Virginia earns the winning ribbon!

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