Address change provided revenue, identity

For years, a curious thing was happening to some of the tax money due to Henrico County.

It was being paid to the City of Richmond instead.

How much, exactly, county officials had no way of knowing, but they conservatively estimated their losses between $5 million and $12 million annually.

The culprit? Inaccurate mailing addresses that labeled most of the county – even the county's own government centers – as "Richmond, Va." In total, all or portions of 15 ZIP codes in Henrico – covering nearly 100,000 postal customers – carried the Richmond name.

Tax payments made by businesses – often those with branches in Henrico but headquartered elsewhere – were being designated incorrectly for Richmond, since that's how those businesses were labeled by the Postal Service.

Fixing the problem seemed simple enough, but years of efforts by county officials couldn't convince the U.S. Postal Service to create new ZIP codes specific to the county (too complicated and costly) or give a more appropriate name to those already in use.

But finally, in early 2008, the U.S. Postal Service agreed to let Henrico residents in the affected ZIP codes decide for themselves. The result was a majority vote that spring in favor of establishing "Henrico, Va." mailing addresses that seemed long overdue. The new addresses took effect that fall, helping Henrico begin to reclaim its missing revenue and also giving it a firm identity at the same time.

For its impact on the county's coffers – and its identity – the establishment of "Henrico" mailing addresses ranks No. 14 on the Henrico Citizen's list of the most significant moments in Henrico's 400-year history.

Finding a solution
Addressing the issue had been a top priority of county executives for some time, but they knew that solutions – though seemingly simple – would require patience and could cause backlash from the city, the postal service and even their own citizens. To some degree, they were right on all counts.

When the Henrico Citizen initially reported the county's estimated tax losses in early 2003 as a result of the issue, some citizens reacted with skepticism. Others bristled at the notion of changing the recognizable "Richmond" address for something less identifiable to most outside of Central Virginia.

About seven years ago, county officials believed they had convinced the Postal Service of the gravity of the matter. The USPS initially agreed to change the "Richmond" addresses within Henrico to read "Henrico" instead, if survey respondents supported the idea. But then USPS officials backed away from the plan – as well as a subsequent effort by Henrico leaders to conduct a smaller "test" area that could be phased in slowly.

Frustrated, and still losing revenue, county officials enlisted the help of their elected officials in Congress and the Virginia General Assembly to help their efforts gain traction. But the process was slow.

Because the operations of the Postal Service do not take into consideration jurisdictional boundaries, there was no easy way for USPS officials to consider creating new Henrico-specific ZIP codes.

The "Richmond" mailing addresses had permeated Henrico during a period of decades, as the original Richmond post office expanded and opened new branch locations in the county, as well as in Chesterfield. Aside from Glen Allen, Sandston and Highland Springs – which had developed originally with all the features of small towns and therefore received their own mailing addresses and post offices – the rest of Henrico lacked those characteristics and was as a result painted by the broad "Richmond" brush.

Debate grows
When years of discussions finally resulted in the USPS's decision to put the idea of a "Henrico" mailing address to a vote, county officials were thrilled. Customers in the 10 "Richmond ZIP codes located entirely within Henrico County – 23228, 23229, 23231, 23233, 23238, 23242, 23250, 23255, 23288 and 23294 – as well as those customers in the Highland Springs ZIP code, received surveys that spring asking them to vote for or against the proposed change to a "Henrico, Va." mailing address.

As the issue received more public attention, some of the anticipated public commentary became reality.

Some Western Henrico residents argued that the change would lessen the value of their "Richmond" labels, while Eastern Henrico residents, tired of existing in the shadows of Richmond, seemed mostly to favor the change. Some business objections centered around the downside of having to change letterhead, address labels and other mostly minor items.

The public debate was at times a contentious one.

"I think it's a bunch of rubbish that the county says it is losing revenue from the city," one resident wrote in response to a Citizen article about the topic in 2008. "Everyone knows Richmond. If Henrico is trying to create an identity of its own away from Richmond, it can't be done."

But county officials always viewed the issue as a straightforward one.

"The county's money should go to the county, and the city's money should go to the city," Tuckahoe District Supervisor Pat O'Bannon told the Citizen in 2008. "I think it makes sense – [the issue] is worth tax money to the county."

Henrico officials always placed blame for their lost revenue on the system that they said confused taxpayers – especially the large, corporate ones based out of state whose accountants simply checked off "Richmond" as the locality to which their payments were due. Henrico leaders didn't fault the City of Richmond, which unknowingly had become the beneficiary of the misdirected payments for years.

But when the proposed mailing address change was put to a vote, some television commercials encouraged Henrico residents to vote against the change, arguing that the loss of revenue would hurt Richmond and strike a blow to regional cooperation.

Creating an identity
Only about one-third of the customers in the affected regions responded to the 2008 survey, but of those, 61 percent voted in favor of the change, which took effect in October the same year. The vote made "Henrico" the preferred mailing address for each of the 11 affected ZIP codes located entirely within the county and an acceptable address for the Henrico customers in five ZIP codes that straddle Henrico and Richmond (23222, 23223, 23226, 23227 and 23230). (Customers in each of the 16 ZIP codes could, and can, still use "Richmond" if they desire.)

County officials celebrated a long-sought victory that also came with a perhaps unintended side benefit: a true identity for the county.

Because most of the affected ZIP codes were in the heart of Henrico's West End commercial corridor, the change provided instant and widespread name recognition for the county, which has only grown in the years since. That impact may be more difficult to quantify but no less valuable as a result.

Henrico's effort to correct a Postal Service flaw spawned similar efforts elsewhere in Virginia – a rare state in which cities and counties cannot overlap – including in Chesterfield County, where new mailing addresses recently took effect.

Henrico officials have credited their own change with helping to restore millions of dollars to the county's budget – money that has been particularly welcome during the recession of the past several years.
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