As if the Washington area didn't have enough problems, comes now the September issue of Money magazine with its fourth annual "The Best Places to Live Now" survey showing that the area has dropped from the quite respectable 15th place it held last year.

To 142nd.

Ouch. Los Angeles-Long Beach was No. 10, for heaven's sake. And, according to Money, you'd be better off in Galveston, Tex. (32nd), Reno, Nev. (48th), or Florence, Ala. (60th). Even Buffalo ranked 91st of the 300 metropolitan areas evaluated.

Buffalo.

And get this: In 141st place this year, one notch above the nation's capital, is Johnson City, Tenn., a jurisdiction of about 50,000 souls in a "tri-city" metropolitan area on the eastern tip of the state that also includes Kingsport and Bristol, the latter being a two-state town that spills over into Virginia.

In an effort to assess what is so much better about Johnson City than Washington, a reporter telephoned city hall there and asked for the mayor's office.

"This is the mayor's office," said the woman pleasantly.

Could one possibly speak with the mayor?

"Yes, you may. Just a moment," she said without hesitation. And without asking who was calling.

Mayor P.C. Snapp came on the line. "It's like heaven down here," he said. "It probably takes me five minutes to drive to work. We've got a school system that was rated among the top 12 out of 142 systems in the state. We had the first curb-side recycling program in the state. The crime rate is very low too. I think we had four murders last year -- that was an increase of 25 percent because we had three the year before -- and all of these were people who knew one another. We have a minor league baseball team, the Johnson City Cardinals, and we were state high school basketball champs, Triple-A, this year."

A baseball team.

There is also this: "Just yesterday I was in New York at Moody's, or whatever they're called. We had been an A-rated city, and after going up there and presenting our case we're now an A-1, which means we can sell bonds a lot cheaper."

And this: Snapp's modern house has four bedrooms, two full baths, living room, dining room, TS kitchen, garage, a deck off the back and a third of an acre wooded lot. He figures he could get maybe $85,000 for it.

It's a suburban-rural area with lakes and mountains and countryside close at hand. The economy down there, he said, is "diversified," with East Tennessee State University, a new medical center, a new Veterans Affairs hospital and Texas Instruments providing more than 5,000 jobs.

"And Sears has its payment center here, where they have this -- what's it called? -- Discover card. Then another one is the Sears Tele-Catalogue center -- if you call from five surrounding states to order something from Sears, it comes to this center. My wife, incidentally, works there. Mary Anne."

There's an arts center, of course, and "the foliage is real nice in the fall of the year. There are a lot of places here and there you can drive and look -- hills and flatlands, undulating in places. On a clear day you can see Roan Mountain, part of the Appalachian chain, 6,000 foot, though near here it's 1,700 foot."

He recommended that a reporter talk to his barber for local color. But then he remembered that it was Wednesday, the barber's fishing day.

Tom Hodge, editorial director of the Johnson City Press, a paper where he's worked for 40 years, puts his love for the area this way: "I was born here and worked here and all over the United States, and chose to remain here. I never found a place I would rather raise my children than right here. It's a mixture of mountains and lakes with four full seasons, and, in my opinion, some of the most hospitable people in the world."

Clay Marrs, a pharmacist over at the Blankenship Pharmacy, located up against Interstate 181 halfway between the struggling old downtown and the busy new Miracle Mall, takes his Sunday school lessons from Hodge over at the First United Methodist Church. He says he's been up to Washington and doesn't like it much. "Washington has all the pitfalls of big cities," says Marrs, "all the hubbub of super-activity. Here we have busy days, but we're not under the pressure you are in the big city. There's too much going on, and you can't flatten it down, there's just no way."

And he's right. Somehow you just can't flatten it down, no matter how hard you try. All you can do, like the editors of Money, is drop it down to No. 142.

The magazine's editors asked 252 subscribers to rate the importance of characteristics such as weather and crime, then with the help of a consulting firm assigned points to each area depending on how it was thought to deliver on each characteristic. Most important to this year's readers were clean water, low crime, clean air, good cheap medical care, sound local government and low taxes.

Some of these are available around here, some clearly aren't.

The consulting firm, incidentally, is located in Portland, Ore. (38th), and, as it turned out, the Pacific Northwest nearly swept the top ratings, with four of the top eight places this year being in Washington state and another next door in Oregon. But that's another story.

At least Washington, at 142, is one notch above Lynchburg, Va.

Whew.