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3 NC cities—but not Charlotte—are among 25 best run in the US

Charlotte, NC

June 30. A well-run city isn’t just the product of efficient budgeting or lots of resources. It is the fruit of countless other decisions, ranging from police budgeting decisions to long-term debt. Even when the U.S. isn’t in a time of crisis, the larger the city, the more complex it becomes to manage.

Charlotte just came in at No. 113 on the list of best-run cities in the United States, according to a study by WalletHub. The list was 150 cities long, with Washington, D.C. coming in last—or worst—depending on how you might view a glass with water at the midway point.

In North Carolina, Durham came in at a strong No. 5, Greensboro was 12th and Raleigh came in 22nd on WalletHub’s “Best and Worst Run Cities” list.

KIMBERLY NELSON PhD

Metrics

The study crossed six key categories: 1) Financial Stability, 2) Education, 3) Health, 4) Safety, 5) Economy and 6) Infrastructure & Pollution. Within the categories WalletHub looked at metrics like Moody’s credit rating; K-12 school quality/high school graduation rate; infant mortality; violet crime/property crime rates; unemployment rate; walking/biking; Zillow home forecast; and traffic congestion.

Running a city the size of Charlotte isn’t easy, of course, but Charlotte scored well in financial stability, but stumbled in education. and public safety.

Issues, transparency

Kimberly Nelson, Ph.D. is a professor of public administration and government, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government. She dove into the following questions:

In your opinion, what are the most important issues facing US cities today?

Nelson: My answer would have been different a few months ago. Local governments are on the front lines of the COVID 19 crisis and the recent unrest related to policing and race. While county governments typically provide public health services (depending on the state), municipal governments are responsible for enforcing stay-at-home orders, social distancing standards, and other mandates. Municipal governments also run the majority of policing agencies in the U.S. So, they are grappling with how to ensure public safety while also addressing issues of racism in their organizations. On a related issue, many local governments, particularly in Southern states, have legacies of the Confederacy to address – statues on public property, artwork in public buildings, names of public facilities, and sometimes the name of the community itself. Local governments are also subject to significant mandates and fiscal restrictions from their state and the federal government. Local governments are creatures of their states. They cannot take any action that is prohibited by their state government. For example, some state governors have allowed local governments to determine whether there should be more significant COVID-19 restrictions in individual communities than what is required by the state. In other states, governors specifically preempted local governments from taking those actions.

Why are some cities better run than others?

Nelson: That’s a difficult question to answer because first, you have to describe what you mean by “better run.” Choices about tax and fee levels and service levels that are made at the local level may be based on political culture or community preferences. Research does seem to indicate that those using the council-manager form have higher bond ratings, have less conflict among board members, and have a lower level of corrupt acts committed by staff and elected officials. In my opinion (and this is based on anecdotal evidence from studying local governments), local governments that are run by elected leaders who are in office because they care about their communities and who respect and trust the local government staff, generally out-perform other local governments.

What can citizens do to increase the transparency and accountability of local government?

Citizens should pay attention to what their local government is doing. Unfortunately, few citizens are actively engaged with their local governments. There are many ways the public can get involved. Meetings are almost always available to watch electronically. Every local government is seeking residents to volunteer to serve on appointed boards or to run for local office. Most cities offer citizens academies to give the public an inside look at what their local government does. The budget and annual financial reports are available to read online. And, citizens can learn about the structure and organization of the city government by looking at the charter or organizing statutes (which are almost always available online).

In evaluating how well a city is run, what are the top 5 indicators?

Nelson: This is a difficult question to answer because the definition of well-run is again dependent on the culture of the community. A well-run municipal organization is one that is meeting the needs and preferences of its residents. Those preferences and needs vary from place to place. There is sort of a low bar of expectations all governments should meet – fiscal stability (no structural deficit, for example), good internal controls to protect against corruption, elected board members who are focused on the big picture and don’t try to micromanage the government and trust and respect the staff, elected officials who work well together and do not have personal grievances, and in the council-manager form, a manager who is professionally trained and who advises the board and helps them achieve the goals they set for the city.

What are the most useful resources offered to citizens by local governments during the pandemic?

Nelson: Local governments provide most of the basic services people rely on day-to-day. Water, sewer, trash collection, to name a few. All of those activities needed to be maintained at the height of the pandemic. Employees of local governments had to continue to go to work, often in close contact with one another.

In most states, counties provide public health services. So, they are the ones who would coordinate care in their area and track infection rates. In many places, county health departments conduct testing. Local governments also promote the precautions that are recommended by the CDC and state officials.

As far as direct assistance related to the economic crisis, local governments also provide social services such as employment assistance, childcare issues, and support for the homeless population in their areas. Finally, local governments are responsible for enforcement of the COVID regulations, whether from state or local governments.

How can local policymakers reduce racial tensions in the wake of recent movements?

Nelson: Local leaders, both appointed and elected, are grappling with this throughout the country. I will note that since a large proportion of U.S. cities have police chiefs appointed by the manager, this is ultimately the manager’s responsibility. In mayor-council cities, the mayor would have that role. I have looked for research about how the form of government may be related to incidents of excessive force by police, but I haven’t found any.

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