A Tale of Two Cities

July 3, 2018

Good Morning! In this morning’s eBlog, we consider a tale of two cities connected by geography and history, but divided by a fiscal chasm.

A Fiscal Dividing Line. Mayor Kevin Mumpower was reelected in a unanimous Council vote, Tuesday, to serve a second, consecutive term as Mayor of Bristol, Virginia, an independent, border municipality in southern Virginia of just over 17,000, where, on Thursday, the Council has scheduled a work session to complete its review of applicants for boards and commissions. The Council’s first regularly scheduled meeting is scheduled for next Tuesday. The city is twinned with its neighbor, Bristol, Tennessee, which has a larger population of over 27,000. The twin cities’ heritage dates back more than 250 years to when Evan Shelby came to the area in 1766—an area once inhabited by Cherokee Indians. At first, Mr. Shelby had settled his family at Big Camp Meet—the current day site of the twin border cities, but a site then which Shelby had renamed Sapling Grove, where he built a in 1774 on a hill overlooking what is today downtown Bristol, but which was then a key stop on an expanding nation’s road West for early American explorers such as Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark—a fort known as Shelby’s Station. Nearly a century later, in 1853, Joseph Anderson, when surveyors projected a junction of two railroad lines at the Virginia-Tennessee state line, Reverend James King conveyed much of his acreage to his son-in-law, Joseph R. Anderson, who then laid out the original town of Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia. About that time, Samuel Goodson, who owned land adjoining the original town of Bristol at the Virginia-Tennessee border, with Beaver Creek serving as the dividing line between the two colonies, began a development known as Goodsonville; however, he was unable to incorporate Bristol across the state lines of Tennessee and Virginia. Three years later, in 1856, Goodsonville and the original Bristol, Virginia were merged to form the composite town of Goodson, Virginia—the very year when the Virginia and Tennessee Railroads reached the cities, with, ergo, two depots, one in Bristol, Tennessee, and the other in Goodson, Virginia; albeit the depot located in Goodson continued to be referred to as Bristol, Virginia. Thirty-four years later, Goodson, Virginia once again took the name Bristol. In 1998, Congress declared Bristol the “Birthplace of Country Music,” in recognition of its contributions to early country music recordings and influence.

Contiguous to the Virginia Bristol is Tennessee, Bristol, with a slightly greater population of around 25,000, has a median income for a household in the city just over $30,039. Nevertheless, despite their abutments, the twin municipalities have starkly different fiscal situations—with the southern twin in Tennessee in fiscal health, but its northern Virginia twin in a near fiscal crisis, seemingly overwhelmed with debt—even after assistance from the Commonwealth of Virginia helped avert deep cuts in funding for the municipality’s public schools. At present, it appears that interest payments by the city are on a course to consume as much as a quarter of the city’s operating budget—or, as City Manager Randall Eads put it: “We’re about as low as you can go and not have cuts to services…We are truly rebuilding this city from the foundation up.”

While the Commonwealth of Virginia does not specifically authorize chapter 9 municipal bankruptcy, the state’s courts, six years ago, ruled that “local governing bodies have only those powers expressly granted, those necessarily or fairly implied from expressly granted powers, and those that are essential and indispensable” (see Sinclair v. New Cingular Wireless PCS, 283 Va. 567,576 (Va. 2012), the state’s Dillon Rule compounds the fiscal quandary, providing that if “[T]here is a reasonable doubt about whether legislative power exists, the doubt must be resolved against the local governing body.”

Nevertheless, as the Commonwealth’s Auditor of Public Accounts, Martha Mavredes notes: “The state takes great pride in fiscal soundness and when localities start to falter, that reflects poorly on the state.” Indeed, as we have previously noted, the Commonwealth, two years ago, as Petersburg teetered on the verge of insolvency, had tasked Ms. Mavredes to develop a municipal fiscal early-warning system—a system which, in its first report, put Bristol, along with Petersburg, at the head.

Manager Eads noted: “One of the biggest things we have to overcome as a city is our demographics,” referring to the fiscal challenge in a municipality where nearly a quarter of its residents are in poverty, with more than 40% on some of government assistance, and more than 80% of its school population eligible. That is, it has become clear to Mr. Eads that a new fiscal approach will be necessary.

A Tale of Two Cities. In one area where distinguishing one Bristol from another is enabled by small brass plaques embedded down the center line of State Street which have “Tennessee” on one side and “Virginia” on the other, the twin, bi-state municipalities share a library and an emergency dispatch system; they have connected water systems, and they share payments for the electric bills to finance the neon signs over State Street, which read: “A good place to live.” The twin cities’ city halls are just blocks apart.

However, as we know, looks can be deceiving. Here, the issue of waste appears to have precipitated the fiscal parting of ways: the Virginia Bristol’s old landfill reached capacity about two decades ago; so the municipality opted to construct a new one in a 20-acre limestone pit—one in which the walls were porous. In order to prevent seepage of dangerous chemicals, the city had to purchase a new lining for the landfill walls nearly every other year‒at a cost of $1.2 million each time. That meant, with fees insufficient to cover operating and maintenance costs, the municipality was adding to its debt: currently, Bristol is trying to finance more than $30 million in debt from the landfill, forcing the city to write off $22 million siphoned from the general fund to cover expenses.

Even as unanticipated expenses have soared, the city’s tax base has eroded, hard hit by the collapse of the coal industry, especially in the wake of one of the nation’s largest coal companies, Alpha Natural Resources, headquartered in the city, filing for bankruptcy twelve years ago—at almost the same time as Ball Corp. moved its metal lid-making plant to Mexico. A commercial area developed just off I-81 in the 1990s began to sour. The combination appeared to contribute to the consequent closure of Bristol Mall.

Looking for a fiscal and commercial recovery, the city’s leaders opted to try to enter the commercial real estate business, creating The Falls, intended to be a $260 million hub of restaurants and shops—albeit without, mayhap, closely examining how such a commercial development would be affected by an even larger such development in adjacent Tennessee—where the Tennessee General Assembly had enacted legislation intended to assist its border cities compete with rivals in other states. Because the Volunteer State has no personal income tax, but it has sales tax of up to 9.75%, or nearly double Virginia’s, the difference appears to have been an important factor in providing incentives for those who reside near the border between the two states to opt to reside in Tennessee, but shop in Virginia. The new law allowed developers who built retail within 15 miles of a border to recoup some of the sales and use tax, making projects more attractive.

That led one entrepreneur, Steve Johnson to purchase a 200-acre piece of property, valued at close to $250 million, called The Pinnacle, a complex made up of a million square feet of shops and restaurants, anchored by a Bass Pro Shop, CarMax, Marshalls, and a Belk department store. Unsurprisingly, local Bristol, Virginia officials asked Mr. Johnson to consider developing The Falls instead, pressing the Virginia Legislature to enact provisions for sales and use tax revenue rebates for project developers. In the meantime, Mr. Johnson decided developing the site would be too expensive to level and grade, the roads were too small, and the location was just wrong. Undeterred, the city found another developer, so that, today, The Pinnacle counts nearly 70 merchants, while The Falls has fewer than 10. Thus, instead of helping the city deal with its landfill debt burden, The Falls has significantly added to the fiscal quandary, adding nearly $48 million to the city’s debt—and its political dissatisfaction.

Indeed, unsurprisingly, voters tossed all five Councilmembers from office, electing a slate which included two write-in candidates—and a Council which, early last year, hired a new City Attorney, Randall Eads, who had been a criminal defense attorney, perhaps a key factor in a region which has experienced a plague of methamphetamines and prescription drug abuse. Within six months, the Council removed the then city manager and asked Mr. Eads to step in—perhaps a step that opened his eyes to how grave the city’s physical and fiscal challenges were. In a city beset by such serious drug abuse, one of his first challenges was where to host the perpetrators: the city’s jail, after all, had a capacity of 67 inmates, but, in March, 240 prisoners: the escalating drug crisis meant overcrowding in the municipal jail, and unanticipated costs for those who could not be squeezed in at a regional holding facility at a cost of $38 per inmate per day.

That forced Mr. Eads to see if he could find a way to reduce the inmate population, leading him to propose an alternative punishment program for nonviolent offenders, one which would help them find work and subject them to regular drug testing. Simultaneously, Mr. Eads has been replacing city department heads and working to build morale; he has even been paying for staff picnics out of his pocket. However, it seems as if he has been trying to climb out of a sand hole: absent fiscal changes, the municipality anticipates it will soon face a $2.4 million annual shortfall in debt service payments.

But just on the other side of the state line, in another Bristol City Hall (Tennessee), Bristol City Manager Bill Sorah, who has previous experience in the Virginia Bristol, notes the legal distinctions, especially the differences in the constitutional status of each city: The Commonwealth of Virginia is the only state in which municipalities are independent entities: they are not incorporated as art of the surrounding county. In contrast, Tennessee’s Bristol is a unit of the surrounding Sullivan County: ergo, it faces no problem with inmate overcrowding, no criminal courts to finance, no jail, and no public school system. It has the legal authority denied its counterpart to annex land—authority unavailable on the other side of the border, where Virginia has had a moratorium on annexation for nearly four decades—one the General Assembly recently extended to 2024.

Searching for fiscal solutions. Earlier this year, Virginia Auditor Mavredes granted Bristol $100,000 to hire a consultant to help determine potential fiscal solutions—help which Manager Eads is sure to appreciate—or, as he put it: “We’re in it…so now we’ve got to fix it.” Thus, the city has jacked up fees at the landfill and is pressing ahead with The Falls, and is focusing on putting together a fiscal blueprint to pay down debt and build cash reserves. Indeed, rather than let his city go to pot, he is even entertaining the potential lease from local investors to purchase the shuttered Bristol Mall: the investors are interested in financing a local start-up, Dharma Pharmaceuticals, which wants to convert the vast facility into an operation producing cannabidiol, the marijuana derivative which the Commonwealth Virginia recently approved for treating certain illnesses—meaning the abandoned Penney and Belk buildings could go to pot.

With city’s fiscal year beginning at the end of this week, city leaders have been looking ahead: Mayor Kevin Mumpower outlined his short-term priorities at the beginning of this week’s City Council meeting, and City Manager Randy Eads reported he had an agenda, but would defer presenting it until after the meeting. Mayor Mumpower said many of his goals focus on the city’s long-term fiscal fortunes: “We don’t want the city to ever get to the place it got two years ago. We want it stable and moving forward, so we’re going to look at the charter, see what we can do to refine it and maybe present a few things to the state legislature to draft for us to solidify the city’s financial footing…We know future Councils can undo what we do, but, the way I look at it, that’s on them. Our responsibility is to try to do the right thing.”

The Mayor noted that this could turn out to be a lengthy, detailed process to determine reasonable thresholds so that, in the future, there would be fiscal strictures on borrowing. He reported that his second priority would be promoting economic development and hiring an economic development coordinator—someone with a focus on attracting new businesses to the city. He described a third priority to develop a program to provide inmates job opportunities in order to reduce recidivism and the city’s expensive jail population, noting: “We want to establish that inmate work release program. That is going to be a home run if Randy [Eads], the Sheriff and the Commonwealth’s Attorney can figure this out: We’ve already had several meetings about how we would train these inmates, get them certified, give them a skill set so they’re employable. That would save the city $500,000 to $750,000 a year—that one goal. If that’s successful, it would be a really big deal for the city.”

A second is completion of a state-funded study of the city’s solid waste landfill operations, with that coming as the Council had just voted to increase residential trash collection by $4 per month in order to help offset operating costs, or, as the Mayor put it: “We need to figure out what we’re going to do with our last big albatross: We’re subsidizing the landfill $500,000 this year—it was $1 million—but we’ve done that at the expense of the community.” Finally, Mayor Mumpower reported his last priority would be to establish restricted funds where funds would be set aside for specific needs, including key capital needs such as a fire truck, a school building fund, and another exclusively to pay down debt service: “We need to have money set aside only for those purchases so we don’t have to worry about where those funds are coming from.”

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