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Small towns: rididng a new wave

The current Washington conference on small towns rides a double wave: a surge of population in their direction and the rise of a political philosophy delegating each governmental function to the lowest level able to handle it. The trick will be to realize the glowing promise -- and minimize the pitfalls -- in this situation.

It's a step forward even to have annual national conferences on the subject. This week's is only the second put on by the National Association of Towns and Townships, which represents some 13,000 of the nation's 17,000 towns and townships. Vice-President Bush is scheduled to give the meeting an administration boost this morning, with several Cabinet members also on the three-day program. Congressional interest has been shown by such means as monitoring legislation for what might be called small-town impact evaluation. Two senators and two representatives are being honored with the association's legislator-of-the-year awards.

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All this in itself may suggest some progress in line with the conference's theme of bridging the gap between the grass roots and the capital. But the 600 delegates, often paying for their trips out of their own pockets, will be returning to typical problems about which Washington and the general public still need to know more:

* It is fine to reduce big government by letting functions be undertaken at their lowest effective level -- but not without the resources to match. The population of nonmetropolitan counties has been rising faster that that of metropolitan counties in the past decade. Areas have sought metropolitan status to qualify for federal programs pegged to that status. Now metropolitan status has been redefined to check the expansion of metropolitan areas. Whatever the words used, small communities -- under 25,000 population, and frequently under 10,000 -- fall below the 50,000 figure often triggering federal programs and policies.

They have become victim to a kind of the-more-you-spend-the-more-you-get procedure by which allocations are based on spending and taxing. Sometimes small communities keep taxes down by charging user fees for trash collection or other services. They keep spending down through volunteer service by officials and others. They feel such fees and volunteerism should be considered when it comes to receiving resources related to efforts made. As it is, in revenue sharing, for example, many small towns have not felt they've received a fair return in relation to all taxes paid.

At the same time, despite small-town concern for preserving clean air and water, the federally prescribed means for doing so can become a burden. Even when federal funding aids in building a certain water treatment plant, for example, the costs of running it may be a drain on local resources.

Some officials say they have a hard enough time dealing with their state governments, let alone Washington. As population trends increase the small-town constituency, governments at all levels will need to cooperate in ensuring that localities are able to maintain the responsibilities expected of them either through retaining local revenues or obtaining assistance up the ladder.

* While the growth of big cities continues around the world, recent projections show Americans reversing the trend. To entrenched small-towners the new arrivals from the city often seem to have a sentimental view of what they will find -- and then discover public services different from city standards. Streets may not be cleared of snow so quickly. Residents may have to take their garbage to the dump themselves. The infrequent fires are handled by a volunteer fire department. As populations grow, such services may have to be expanded and improved. The towns can't do it in a vacuum.

Some understanding of such matters is what the present conference is trying to encourage. The delegates have not seen many concrete results from the small community and rural development legislation passed under the last administration , though small-towner Carter did bring the rural trend to public attention. They place high hopes in President Reagan. If he follows through on his campaign, he will not disappoint them.

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