Editorial: A prosperous future will require bold ideas

Editorial Board • Sep 24, 2019 at 10:05 AM

On Aug. 23, 1784, a convention of representatives from Sullivan, Greene and Washington counties met in Jonesboro to discuss petitioning the federal government to form their own independent state.

Those attending were dissatisfied with the lack of support they were receiving from the state capital (Raleigh) and believed their common interests would be better served by banding together as a distinct region.

Regionalism is hardly a new concept, yet 235 years later we are still discussing the concept without a clear plan to act. Perhaps it’s time to move from discussion to an action plan.

It is widely understood that the root cause of our problem of competing interests is the locus-based taxing system, which pits one county against another and creates winners and losers in the economic development game. Businesses and people who locate in Johnson City/ Washington County do not contribute to the tax revenues for Tennessee High, Sullivan South or Dobyns-Bennett nor anything else in Sullivan County. And elected officials who are not concerned about maintaining or growing their tax base don’t exist, at least for long.

W. Edwards Deming, the father of modern management theory, instructs management to look for “root causes” (which sometimes manifest themselves as barriers) of disruption and solve them if they truly wish to fix a problem. The root barrier to regionalism is the division of our region into political subdivisions that do not share tax revenues. Blaming the problem on a “Friday night football” mentality as some have done is as insulting as it is demeaning. It’s the money.

The state of Kentucky recently introduced legislation to reduce the number of counties in the state from 120 to 34. California, a much larger state, has just 58. The legislation stalled from opposition from local county leadership. Tennessee has 95 counties. They were formed to ensure that every citizen could reach their county seat and conduct legal business within one day’s travel time — by horse.

Our transportation system has improved substantially in the last 200 years, but our political subdivisions remain.

While it’s probably a bridge too far to expect Nashville to recognize and fix this issue, locally with a request for a private act, we could ask permission to merge Sullivan and Washington counties. Our county commissions acting together in an enlightened way can do that.

By merging the two counties into a single political unit, we immediately become the fifth-largest in the state. Better yet, we have a political unit that encompasses the three largest cities in the region and a county mayor and commission that represents them all. And a new business that locates in any of the three cities will be making some contribution to schools across the county. The merger of the two counties then makes a single organization for economic development efforts not only logical but imperative. It should coincidentally also save taxpayers money by consolidating county offices.

One would be hard pressed to find a modern organization — other than government — in society today that hasn’t reorganized and consolidated in the past 200 years. The advancements in transportation and communications have made that possible and vastly more efficient.

If leadership in this region truly believes that cooperation regionally is a key driver in turning our region’s disturbing trends around — and we’re convinced they do — then they need to propose realistic solutions to real problems. We’ve been talking about regionalism off and on and in one shape or another for 235 years. Combining these two counties may seem farfetched, but is it?

Socrates said, “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but building the new.” That’s an admonishment to be bold. The time is now for the Heart of the Appalachian Highlands — Sullivan and Washington counties — to be bold.