Most of the nation's larger cities are not financially pressed, a joint study by the accounting firm of Touche Ross & Co. and the First National Bank of Boston concluded.
Furthermore, the study said, there does not seem to be a direct link between adverse social and structural conditions -- such as a large percentage of citizens in poverty -- and financial difficulties.
The study, however, excluded the six cities in the United States with populations of more than one million, including New York City, which has flirted with bankruptcy for several years - and also did not include Cleveland, which in December became the first major American city to default on a security since the Great Depression.
Besides New York, the other cities with populations over a million are Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston and Detroit. Washington was not included in the study, although Baltimore was.
All told, the analysis covered 66 of the 393 cities with populations between 50,000 and one million. It found four of them in financial stress and eight more in somewhat less precarious, but nonetheless serious, financial difficulties.
A city is in financial stress, according to the accounting firm and the bank, if its per capita taxes, debt and municipal spending are significantly higher than similar cities.
The four cities the analysts found in the worst shape are Boston, Atlanta and Hartford and Stanford, Conn. The eight cities that could soon stretch their abilities to tax and spend to the limit are Richmond, Va.; Denver; Seattle, Duluth; Long Beach, Calif. Fresno, Calif and Worcester, Mass.
"Importantly, 54 cities - the vast majority - appear to have maintained their tax, debt and expense ratios in line with underlying resouce capacity," the study said.
James M. Howell, chief economist for First Boston, said the nation's biggest cities were excluded because their size and their structures make each of them unique.
"We intended to pick cities with a lot of commonality... we were interested in looking at cities of a size group that could be managed."
Howell and Touches Ross' Charles F. Stamm admitted the study is, at best, a first step toward a more comprehensive look at the financial condition of the nation's cities.
For example, the study looked only at the taxing, spending and debt of cities themselves. And ignored county financial conditions.
As a result, Pittsburgh, a large industrial city with a declining population and tax base, comes off well when compared with other aging Northeastern cities. But Allegheny County taxes heavily and provides many services. If the county and city were examined together, the area's financial capabilities might appear more "stressed," to use the author's term.
The study found that cities with an aging industrial base are more likely to have economic problems than cities where industry and private investments are growing.
"This means," the author said, "that municipal financial well-being depends on maintaining private investments and jobs. Federal or state efforts to deal with municipal financial stress without addressing the investment and job creation issues may help the cities with their immediate cash flow difficulties, but will not encourage them to come to terms with their underlying problems."
The study broke the cities into those that are "old industrialized," with declining manufacturing employment; "industrially maturing," with beginning decline in industrial employment; and "young industrial growth," where population and manufacturing employment are growing.
As cities age industrially -- many relatively old cities such as Richmond were classified as "young" industrially -- taxes rise, operating expenses jump and the municipal work force increases rapidly, the study said.
Nine old cities take 9.5 percent of the average citizen's income, and municipal employment accounts for 8 percent of total employment. The maturing cities tax 5.5 percent of income and employ of 4.25 percent of the work force, while in tge younger industrial cities, taxes take up 4.9 percent of income and municipal workers are 3 percent of the total labor force.
But some old cities, such as Pittsburgh and Trenton, have relatively low taxes and spending per capita, while young cities with growing manufacturing employment such as Denver, Atlanta and Richmond, tax and spend as if they were a declining industrial city, the study said. Tr for add seven
This suggests, the study said, "that management and political decisionmaking processes can hold the growth in services in balance with underlying economic resources to maintain financial equilibrium, even under adverse economic, social and structural conditions."