Monday, July 2, 2018

Small-city woes in Virginia partly attributable to city-county structure, relationship

The Washington Post reported yesterday under the headline, "Two cities share a name, water and a library.  But one is in big trouble."  The two cities are Bristol, Virginia (population 17,000) and Bristol, Tennessee (population 27,000).  It is the former one that is struggling, in part because of the socioeconomic woes of its residents, as City Manager Randall Eads explains: 

"One of the biggest things we have to overcome as a city is our demographics,” he said. Nearly a quarter of Bristol’s residents are in poverty. More than 42 percent get some form of monthly government assistance. Because 83 percent of the city’s school population qualifies for help, every pupil gets free lunch.

Journalist Gregory S. Schneider also addresses the city's remoteness from the seat of government.

At the far southwestern end of Interstate 81’s path down the Great Appalachian Valley, Bristol is closer to the capitals of six other states than it is to Richmond (West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia).
Schneider notes that Virginia presents itself as "a top-tier, economically advanced place to do business" but that "small cities and rural areas are losing population and economic power while the state's wealthy suburban crescent--from D.C. through Richmond to Hampton Roads--grows and prospers."  

Schneider also observes that "several quirks of Virginia state law make it harder for ... suffering areas to help themselves."  The primary structural difference is that "Virginia is the only state in the country in which cities are independent entities," a quirk that dates to colonial times.

Another aspect of the comparison Schneider offers regards criminal justice costs, an arena where the status of home-rule cities (versus towns) works against small cities like Bristol.  Schneider explains the situation in Virginia:
One of the most urgent issues is the city jail, built to house 67 inmates. In March, the city had 240 prisoners, thanks to the [  ] drug crisis. ... About 140 of those have been squeezed into the jail; the rest are sent to a regional holding facility at a cost of $38 per inmate per day. 
That adds up. So Eads has been working with local law enforcement, prosecutors and judges to come up with what seems like the only solution: a way to reduce inmate population.
Tennessee's Bristol, on the other hand, has no jail; surrounding Sullivan County takes care of that function, as is the case in most states.  Sullivan County also partly funds Bristol, Tennessee's school system, which is standard in Tennessee.    

No comments: