Good work: Hanover sets an optimistic example

By Bob Rayner / Richmond Times-Dispatch

The AAA bond rating of the United States of America is in peril. But a somewhat smaller entity — one that is not able to print its own currency — enjoys a much more secure standing in the global financial community.

Hanover County (population: 99,863, according to the 2010 census) is the smallest county in the country to earn AAA honors from all three bond-rating agencies. The next smallest has a population of 170,000. And the typical AAA county is home to 778,000 people.

So how did Hanover accomplish a status attained by only 36 of America’s 3,034 counties?

  • Not by charging high taxes. The real estate tax (except in Ashland) is the lowest among the region’s largest localities — 81 cents per $100 of assessed value.
  • Not by skimping on schools. Hanover public schools have the highest on-time graduation rate (95 percent) and the lowest dropout rate (2.2 percent) among Virginia’s large school systems. Among all 132 school districts in the commonwealth, Hanover boasts the third-best record in both categories. All of the county’s schools are accredited based on 2010 Standards of Learning scores — and its per-pupil spending has consistently ranked among the lowest in the state over the past 20 years.
  • Not by letting criminals run wild. Hanover saw a 10 percent drop in major crime last year, from an already low rate.
  • Not by scaring away jobs. In May, Hanover’s 5.7 percent unemployment rate was the lowest among the four major localities in the Richmond region.
  • And certainly not by wasting taxpayer dollars. Hanover expects to end the 2011 fiscal year with a surplus of about $1.2 million. It has a reserve balance equal to 12.6 percent of its revenue. And it has a special reserve fund of $2.95 million that was created before the recession hit with full force, which acts as a cushion to protect the county’s most important services and capital needs.

So it wasn’t terribly surprising when a recent survey found that 96 percent of Hanoverians rated their county a “good” or “excellent” place to live.

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Why all the Hanover boosting? Certainly not to elevate it above the Richmond region’s other localities, each of which has its own set of accomplishments and challenges.

But in these difficult times, it seems worthwhile to take a moment to acknowledge a local success story, particularly one built on intense citizen involvement, strong partnerships between business and government, consistently sound leadership in both the public and the private sectors — and a willingness to look forward with optimism and clarity.

Hanover’s successes are not accidental. They’re the result of hard work, responsible planning, flexible execution and a fundamental faith in creative but limited government.

In 1990, the county’s population stood at 63,306. Over the past two decades, it has expanded by more than 56 percent.

Mechanicsville’s small-town atmosphere was transformed by rapid suburban growth. Ashland remains the center of Hanover — and the universe — while green and rolling western Hanover retains much of its rural character.

The county’s leaders in the early 1990s recognized the changes, challenges and opportunities that exceptional growth would bring. They didn’t panic, they were not overwhelmed. They were not paralyzed by the inevitable tension between the older, slower-moving west and the increasingly influential east.

They argued, made hard decisions, stuck by them, appointed smart people to critical positions. It’s tempting to list some of the stars, to name names — but there are too many.

Ultimately, Hanover’s success has been a community effort. The tradition continues.

Copyright Richmond Times-Dispatch. Used by permission.