The 38 cities in Virginia are independent from counties. In some cases, such as Winchester and Staunton, a city may be surrounded by a county - but they are totally separate jurisdictions despite geographic proximity.
Residents of Virginia cities vote for city councils and mayors, pay city real estate and personal property taxes, and get business/professional licenses from city officials. City residents do not get to vote for county supervisors, and city residents do not pay county taxes.
If a Virginia city annexes land from a Virginia county, then the residents in the annexed area lose the right to vote for county officials... but no longer have to pay county taxes either. (Residents of both cities and counties pay state and Federal taxes, and annexation does not affect obligations to state and Federal governments.)
Towns are different from cities. In Virginia, towns are *not* independent from counties. Residents of towns are still residents of the county in which the town is located. For example, residents of the towns of Haymarket, Quantico, Dumfries, and Occoquan are also residents of Prince William County. Residents of the towns of Rural Retreat and Wytheville are also residents of Wythe County. Town residents pay town taxes and vote for town councils, but the residents also pay county taxes and vote for county officials.
|NOTE: Data below comes from the Year 2000 Census. The 6 square miles and the population for the former city of South Boston have been added to Halifax County, after the city reverted back to a town in 1995. The 3 square miles and the population of Clifton Forge have *not* been added to Alleghany County. Clifton Forge reverted to town status in 2001 and is no longer a city, and Bedford converted to a town in 2013, but the statistics below are from the 2000 Census. Charlottesville is now the largest Virginia city threatening to abandon its independent status and force the county taxpayers to contribute to schools and other city services for city residents.|
When the colonists first settled Virginia, their concept of a government was based on the English pattern. In England the bishops of the Anglican Church had authority over ecclesiastical courts and parishes, providing the church officials some authority over the average English peasant. Each "city" in England had a bishop as well as civil officials, so there were some checks and balances to authority.
In 1619 the first General Assembly consisted of representatives from separate boroughs within the four corporations (Charles City, Elizabeth City, Henrico, and James City). This opened up the possibility that each corporation could have its own bishop and cathedral, but the Bishop of London chose to keep his authority over the entire colony. The Church of England never sent bishops to America; instead, the Bishop of London sent a Commissary as his representative (and not until 1689).
The concept of "city" with a bishop was outdated in Virginia by 1634, when the first counties were established, but three of the first eight counties had the term included in their name. This is especially confusing now. Virginia is unique in the United States in treating "cities" as independent political organizations, completely separate from counties.
Towns (such as Dumfries in Prince William County and Blacksburg in Montgomery County) and unincorporated areas with a name on the roadside (such as Centreville, Reston, and Tysons Corner in Fairfax County) are part of a county. Towns have a mayor and a town council, but there is no "Mayor of Reston" or "Mayor of Tysons Corner" because those places are just unicorporated portions of Fairfax County. Reston and Tysons Corner residents vote for a member of the Fairfax Board of County Supervisors, plus the chair of that the Fairfax Board of County Supervisors. (Members are elected by separate magisterial districts within the county, and residents of each district vote for one member, but everyone in the county gets to vote separately for the chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.)
Fairfax County magisterial districts - geographic boundaries for
electing 9 members of the Board of County Supervisors, plus the Chair who is elected countywide
Source: Library of Congress
Residents of unincorporated areas elect just county officials, and pay just county taxes. Residents of towns in Virginia vote for both town and county officials, and pay taxes to both the town and the county. Some towns include land in two counties:1
However, cities in Virginia are different from towns. Cities are politically independent from counties. Residents of cities are NOT residents of any county in Virginia, even if the city boundaries are completely surrounded by the county. The state legislature, the General assembly, grants cities extra authority to impose taxes, and cities maintain their own road systems - except the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) maintains the interstates and major state highways, such as Interstate 66 and Route 7 where they cut through the independent City of Falls Church. City officials set their own priorities for repaving city highways and sidewalks, and do not have to deal with VDOT officials when making most decisions.
Therefore, residents of the City of Manassas (or the separate City of Manassas Park) will not be able to vote for members of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. Residents of the City of Charlottesville will not be able to vote in elections for the Albemarle County Board, even though the cities are completely surrounded by Prince William and Albemarle counties. Residents of the City of Staunton - well, you get the idea...
A city-county may not be a bad idea, however. Since World War Two, five counties (including Elizabeth City County) have merged with their cities or had the General Assembly convert the county into a city. In 1975, the General Assembly imposed a moratorium that blocked most hostile annexations by cities grabbing high-value commercial property that paid more in taxes than the land required in services. (Shopping centers do not send children to school, so cities were annexing the portions of counties that paid high property taxes but required few city services...)
In the last 30 years, many Virginia cities and counties have arranged to share services such as landfills and jails, without spending time and money in court disputing annexations that actually alter the boundaries. The General Assembly is now encouraging regional cooperation. The deadline for water supply plans (required after the 2002 drought) was extended for jurisdictions that "partnered up" with the neighboring cities/counties.
In the last two decades, three cities have relinquished their charters and reverted to being just towns within their surrounding counties. South Boston became a town in Halifax County in 1995, Clifton Forge became a town in Alleghany County in 2001, and in 2013 the city of Bedford reverted to become the town of Bedford within the county of Bedford.
When a city converts to a town, the city council is replaced by a town council. Town residents pay county and town taxes, with the town taxes covering additional services (such as extra police patrols) that are not provided within the county. If a town abandons its charter, then the town council is abolished and county taxpayers will absorb the cost of services in the town - though some of those services, such as extra police patrols, may be eliminated.
In 2009, Fairfax County considered asking the General Assembly to convert the county into a city. The primary issue was frustration with state delays in widening roads and building new overpasses/interchanges in Fairfax County. As a city, Fairfax would receive a standard allocation of funds for highways, and county officials - rather than the state's Commonwealth Transportation Board - would determine what projects should receive priority. (There is already a City of Fairfax, so if the county converted into a city... it would have to find a new name.)
References1. Virginia Commission on Local Government, "Virginia's Incorporated Towns and Their Parent Counties," July 1, 2001, http://www.dhcd.virginia.gov/CommissiononLocalGovernment/PDFs/towns.counties.pdf (last checked September 27, 2011)