Road to Regionalism: Should counties be consolidated?

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(WJHL)- Now more than ever, local leaders say they’re committed to collaboration but the concept of “regionalism” is hardly new. Some say structural barriers, like county lines, incentivize competition and could continue to stunt success.

They’re 200 years old or so, why are they there?” said Keith Wilson, former publisher of the Kingsport Times-News. “It’s an artificial construct and it’s really not accomplishing the purposes it was designed to do.”

Tennessee’s 95 counties are home to 6.77 million people. Compare that to California, a state divided into 58 counties with a population of 39.56 million.

Wilson said county lines were drawn so citizens could reach government buildings on horseback.

Today, he thinks consolidating counties is an idea worth considering. He said local leaders should first appoint a task force to study the feasibility of combining Sullivan and Washington Counties. Later, smaller counties could also merge.

Not everyone is a fan.

“Some people have said well really to be regional we need these two counties to come together. I don’t think that’s true,” said Sen. Jon Lundberg (R-Bristol).

Sen. Lundberg said the idea is possible. He said to sponsor a bill he would need a resolution of support from both county governments.

Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable said the idea is interesting but, for now, it’s unrealistic. “Just the mechanics of putting that together and dealing with the state would be pretty much overwhelming,” he said.

Tennessee isn’t the only state having the conversation.

In January 2018, Former Kentucky Rep. Toby Herald (R- Beattyville) introduced a bill that he said would’ve consolidated county administrative offices and school district central offices in counties with fewer than 50 thousand people. The bill died in committee.

“These little rural counties in Appalachia, their population is declining and going to the larger counties, larger cities,” he said. “They don’t have a tax base to operate their county and it’s passed on to the property owners.”

A declining workforce population and decreasing student enrollment in rural counties are the same trends driving the regionalism conversation in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

MORE: How shrinking numbers are shaping the future of rural education

MORE: Population decline is putting the Tri-Cities at a disadvantage for business recruitment, experts say

“One of the biggest barriers for regional cooperation, if that’s what we’re talking about, is the political subdivisions that we all fight across and the reason that’s important is that the tax revenue follows political subdivisions,” Wilson said.

Numbers from FY 2019 show Sullivan and Washington Counties benefit from increased shopping in their city centers. Rural counties like Hawkins, Johnson and Unicoi collect much less in local option sales tax per person. That means elected leaders have less money at their disposal to support schools and other public services.

“When sales tax and property tax go where they go because of where a project lands then that creates some angst,” said NETWORKS-Sullivan Partnership CEO Clay Walker.

“The tax system is antiquated to be the kindest I can be,” said Venable.

Venable pointed to revenue sharing as a potential solution. He said that’s how two counties and four cities approached Aerospace Park.

“That is the utopian method I guess of those who want true regionalism is that you split the revenues based on your participation,” Venable said.

Leaders pose for a picture at Aerospace Park.

Though Sullivan and Washington County may not be merging anytime soon, their economic development organizations could be.

ORIGINAL STORY: NETWORKS and NeTREP commit to collaboration, open to merging

NeTREP works to recruit new businesses to Washington, Carter and Unicoi Counties. NETWORKS does the same for Sullivan and Hawkins Counties.

In a joint statement in September, the groups agreed to work together to recruit new businesses to the region. “It does nobody any good by incentivizing a company to come from Sullivan County into Washington County to relocate here,” said NetTREP CEO Mitch Miller.

Some are worried Washington County will benefit more from the regionalism push than others.

“No matter where a project goes, whether it be retail, industrial–everybody wins a little,” Walker said. “To worry about somebody winning a little more is kind of taking your eye off the ball.”

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