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Ailing economies lead decline in local conditions.

More than one-third of local officials say that job and career opportunities for a newcomer to their community are poor, according to NLC's Opinion Survey of Elected Municipal Officials.

In November 1990, 22 percent of local officials--perennial boosters of their hometowns--characterized local opportunities as poor. By the end of 1991, that number increased sharply to 34 percent. Only one in ten asserts that local work opportunities are "great."

Fully 51 percent of those surveyed report that "overall" local economic conditions worsened in 1991. That proportion rose from 14 percent in 1989 and 36 percent in 1990.

Respondents to the survey were asked to evaluate changes in a wide variety of conditions in their communities. Eighteen of the 24 conditions were described as worse more often than improved, often by large margins.

In addition to their general assessment of whether a particular condition had improved, stayed the same, or worsened, respondents were given a chance to highlight conditions which had deteriorated most, had improved most, would be most difficult to deal with, and those creating the most important community problems. For each, officials could cite three conditions.

Leading the list of conditions which were most often evaluated as worsened are cost of living (54.5 percent), unemployment (50.9 percent) and overall economic conditions (50.6 percent).

Overall economic conditions also led the pack of most deteriorated community conditions, mentioned by 34.2 percent of respondents. As well, it topped a luist of conditions predicted to be among the three most difficult to deal with in the next two years, mentioned by one third of respondents.

Unemployment and cost of living were cited by 20.1 and 14.9 percent, respectively, as most deteriorated community conditions.

Both were also among the "top ten" most frequently cited as most difficult to deal with and causing the most important problems for the community.

While more than 34 percent cited overall economic conditions as one of the three most deteriorated conditions in their communities during the past five years, another 16 percent listed it as one which had improved the most. This points to a disturbing polarization in the way communities across the nation are affected by economic change.

Looking beyond these indications of local recessions, an agenda of other serious problems facing cities and towns emerges from the survey.

There were a few bright spots.

Officials gave favorable assessments of changes in the interest rate on city borrowing and local mortgate conditions.

Both of these ranked among the top four most frequently improved local conditions, mentioned by 26 and 22 percent, respectively.

These might be attributed to the lowered interest rates that are part of Federal efforts to budge a stagnant national economy.

The vast majority (86 percent) of officials surveyed indicate no change in supply of energy. Only 5 percent indicated worsened energy supply conditions, returning to a consistent five year norm after last year's jump of concern to 14 percent in the wake of the Persian Gulf Conflict.

Other conditions which were cited most often as among the most improved were streets and roads (33.8 percent), water and sewer (29.8 percent), and solid waste disposal (20.6 percent). These figures indicate some local officials' favorable assessment of their local government's ability to provide infrastructure services.

These few items exhaust the short list of conditions which were characterized as locally improved more often than worsened.

Even though streets and roads placed highest on the list of most improved conditions at 33.8 percent, it was also cited as a most deteriorated condition by 13.1 percent of respondents.

This polarization of many community conditions is discouraging in that it probably points to a trend of wealth separation in America. However, it does suggest that at least some communities are successful in addressing these problems.

A similar polarization is seen in communities' abilities to handle solid waste disposal problems. While solid waste ranks with streets and roads as a most deteriorated condition mentioned by 13.1 percent, it was cited as a most improved condition by 20.6 percent of respondents, and a most difficult to deal with problem by 24.3 percent.

Crime and drugs ranked behind only general economic conditions as most difficult problems to address during the next two years, each at 30 percent. Each was mentioned on 27 percent of surveys as the most deteriorated conditions--second and third, once again, only to general economic conditions. Thirty-eight percent indicated that crime had worsened during the last year, while a full 44 percent indicated the same for drugs.

Education also placed near the top of most deteriorated conditions, mentioned by 15.4 percent of respondents. Consistent with a theme of polarization, another 15 percent mentioned education as one of the most improved conditions. It was characterized as a worsened condition by 28.4 percent, and 18.5 percent of respondents said that education is creating some of the most important problems in their communities.

Almost forty-five percent indicated that poverty had worsened during the past year (more than all conditions except overall economic conditions, unemployment, cost of living, and AIDS). It was evaluated as an improved condition the fewest times: by only 2.1 percent of respondents. However, and despite a popular hypothetical correlation between poverty and the "most important problems" of crime and drugs, only 4.6 percent said that poverty was creating some of the most important community problems.

AIDS was characterized as a worsened condition by almost 45 percent of those definitely answring the question. However, AIDS was the only condition to which a significant proportion of respondents (24.9 percent) answered that they were "not sure" about whether it had improved or deteriorated.

Other conditions which were characterized most often as worse are related to housing. While local mortgage conditions improved, availability of low income housing and affordability of both house prices and rental housing worsened according to 27.7, 35.1, and 33.6 percent, respectively, of surveyed officials. Of these, none were mentioned in more than ten percent of surveys as creating most important community problems.

Cities and towns have diverging fiscal capability to address these deteriorating conditions. City fiscal conditions was mentioned by one third of respondents as among the most difficult problems. One fourth say it is one of the most important problems. However, another 22 percent said their city's fiscal situation was among those conditions most improved over the past five years.

A comparison with results of surveys from preceding years shows that officials' evaluation of many worsening conditions this year is at its most discouraging level since 1986. In eight of the conditions asked about, more officials indicated conditions as worsened than in any previous survey records.

Topping that list, once again, were overall economic conditions, unemployment, and city fiscal conditions. The former two were each a full 14 percentage points above previous highs.

Poverty, availability of social services, education, health care, and AIDS round out a list of conditions setting records for reported deterioration.

These eight show the bind on the local elected leader. While poverty, availability of social services, and education are going quickly downhill, a similar deterioration of city fiscal conditions precludes addressing these problems. Prospects for turning around the high deterioration of unemployenment are dimmed by worsened overall economic conditions.
 Six Year Comparison
 Percentage of officials reporting worsening
conditions in their community
in the following areas:
 86 87 88 89 90 91
Overall Economic Conditions 27 22 17 14 35 51
Unemployment 26 18 18 8 37 51
Cost of Living 38 36 43 45 60 55
Supply of Energy 5 5 8 4 14 5
Cost of Energy 41 41 40 41 70 41
City Fiscal Conditions 31 33 30 17 30 35
Interest Rate on City Borrowing 13 22 32 9 20 13
Water & Sewer Treatment 13 17 24 13 14 13
Streets, Roads, & Sidewalks 27 30 30 20 19 20
Public Transportation 18 19 19 10 17 15
Local Mortage Conditions 12 32 35 12 37 25
Availability / Low Inc. Housing 27 37 40 24 31 28
Homelessness 28 40 43 18 36 41
Affordability of House Prices 42 40 51 42 42 35
Affordability of Rental Housing 27 38 45 34 40 34
Crime 23 41 45 37 33 38
Poverty 33 35 38 19 36 45
Availability of Social Services NR 26 22 8 17 27
Drugs NR 54 67 58 46 47
Education NR 20 17 12 18 28
Health Care NR 23 21 15 21 32
AIDS NR 35 36 13 38 45
Air Quality NR 19 24 13 27 14
Solid Waste Disposal NR 35 39 36 24 22
COPYRIGHT 1992 National League of Cities
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Special Report: The State of America's Cities, Annual Opinion Survey of Municipal Elected Officials
Author:Barnes, William; Dickinson, David
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Jan 20, 1992
Previous Article:Local officials view future with pessimism.
Next Article:Federal, state levels get poor rating from local officials.

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