Clutching a 1980 directory of Virginia public officials an innocent recently tried to telephone the leaders of Manassas Park. It went like this:
"Is City Manager Ferguson there?"
"She no longer works here, sir."
"How about Tom Stone, the police chief?"
"Sorry, he's chief in Bristol now."
"And Mayor Murphy? Is he there?"
"Him neither. He lost the election."
And so on, through City Council members, directors of public works and social services commissioners. In less than a year, nearly all the top officials of Northern Virginia's smallest incorporated city had come and gone.
That has been the rule rather than the exception since Manassas Park took a chance and severed relations with Prince William County.
Five years and five months since cityhood, the scoreboard in the community known as The Park reads: four departed police chiefs, two former school superintendents, four ex-city managers and 28 people who have, at one time or another, held the six City Council seats. Not to mention the 35 city employes (40 percent of the city's payroll) who quit or were fired in the last year.
"We've had more turnovers here than Betty Crocker," says Buddy Hite, the 32-year-old Lorton Reformatory guard who was elected mayor last spring.
But in the last seven months, the city has scored a series of firsts: its first professional city manager, its first experienced public safety director and its first balance sheet completely in the black.
While its childhood may have been tough, Manassas Park appears well on the path toward a comfortable adolescence.
"We are not on the verge of being a solid city," says Richard Arbore, who has been city manager for almost a year. "We are there."
The people of Manassas Park are a major reason for that, officials say. Economically and sociologically, they are extremely similar to one another, and extremely dissimilar to the rest of the Washington area.
Where other communities have rich people, poor people and inbetween people, the 9,000 residents of Manassas Park are almost all from working-class families.
The average annual income per household is $19,000, but few families earn less than $12,000 or more than $25,000, according to city officials. Nor is unemployment as common as in other working-class communities. Mid-1980 figures place it at 1.2 percent.
More than two-thirds of its residents moved to Manassas Park from West Virginia, Tennessee or southwest Virginia, which makes for a "God-fearing, conservative, almost all-white community," according to a former City Council member.
Typical occupations in Manassas Park include carpenter, painter and truck driver. Few residents cross the river to work in Washington, and many of the cars bear Confederate flag decals. The radio in the fire station is premanently set on a country music station. Meanwhile, only 10 percent of the graduates of the city's one high school go to college.
"We are blue collar through and through," says Arbore, "and we know it."
In terms of knowing the value of a dollar, the Manassas Park government reflects its people. Because city law requires that taxes be collected before anything is spent, Manassas Park has a cash surplus of about $950,000. bIn addition, the City Council must approve every expenditure. "Our cash flow is superb," says Arbore, a decisive, friendly 36-year-old former assistant manager of Stafford County.
The landscape in Manassas Park bears little resemblance to that if its suburban neighbors.
Only 10 miles from the smoked-glass tower that is headquarters for the Fairfax County government, only 30 miles from the grandeur of the Capitol, the Manassas Park school system operates out of a cramped, rented townhouse. City Hall is a trailer.
The homes in Manassas Park aren't palatial, either. Except for the colors of the exteriors, all but a handful are identical: two-bedroom, one-story, aluminum units, built in 1956, set on square lots 50 feet on a side and crammed together in 1.7 square miles of land.
"(The houses are) so close that we always get loud stereo complaints, dogs barking, neighbor versus neighbor sorts of stuff," said Craig McCormick, the public safety director who came to the city in July from a position with the state police chiefs' association.
"And people here are a little more physical than other places. They'll throw a punch first and ask questions later."
But the most pressing municipal problem is money.
The property tax rate of $2.40 for each $100 of assessed value is far and away the highest among Virginia's 41 incorporated cities.
"What that rate means is that a guy who owns a typical $40,000 house here pays about $1,000 a year in real estate taxes," city manager Arbore said. "That's the same amount that a guy pays to live in a $115,000 house in McLean or Vienna."
The rate is so high because Manassas Park has almost no industrial or commercial tax base. Other than a small shopping center along Rte. 28, the city has no business or employers.
What it does have, however, is 203 acres of vacant, city-owned land beside the Southern Railway tracks on the eastern edge of town. "It's zoned industrial. It has sewer and water. It would be perfect for warehouses or small, light industries," Arbore said.
But they aren't there yet, and neither Arbore nor other city officials expects them for at least two years. The reasons: reluctance of businesses to deal with a government that has such an unstable reputation, and disagreement among city leaders about whether they should do the leasing of the property or sell all 203 acres to a commercial developer. Neither difficulty has been resolved, officials say.
Meanwhile, Manassas Park is suffering from declining enrollment in its schools, and according to Superintendent Robert Lewis, the worst may be yet to come.
This year's enrollment at the high school and three elementary schools is 1,661 -- down only two dozens from last year's total, and the smallest drop in the five years the system has been independent.
However, the drops would have been far more serious if preschool enrollment had not risen steadily. "We have become a community of young people starting families and sending those children to our elementary schools," Lewis said. "But we don't expect to see those children go through high school here."
The reason is that many young families consider their Manassas Park homes "starters." As soon as their fortunes improve, families move to larger houses, usually in Prince William County.
For example, on the Manassas Park street where Dixie Breeden has lived for 21 years, "there used to be 76 kids." Today, says Breeden, a 47-year-old teachers' aide at Manassas Park Elementary School, there are 25.
Superintendent Lewis is facing a similar disappearing act among teachers. The starting salary in the Manassas Park system is $11,000 a year -- $999 less than Prince William County and $1,137 less than Manassas. A teacher with a PhD can earn no more than $16,600 in Manassas Park, compared with at least $20,000 in either Manassas or Prince William County.
"Primarily for economic reasons like these, 20 of our teachers (out of 109) left at the end of last year," Lewis said.
Still, such problems pale beside those of the era before Hite and Arbore.
During its first five years as a city, Manassas Park did not repair any streets because it couldn't afford to do so. For the same reason, police officers finishing a shift would hand their guns to co-workers starting the next shift. At least half the fire hydrants in the city did not work. And according to Charlie Miller, a City Council member, accounting procedures were so muddled "that for a whole year, no one could tell me how much money we had."
Arbore says he has those and other such problems under control now, "enough that I can concentrate on getting some efficiency in here. I don't think we'll ever see the kind of healthy mix of kinds of people you have in Fairfax County. What we want is a community where working class folks can be proud to live. We're chipping away at it."