Three Ways Cities Can Help Employees Build a Secure Retirement

In support of National Retirement Planning Week 2015, we asked Alex Hannah, ICMA-RC Vice President, Marketing Communications & Education, to contribute the following post on retirement planning tips and resources for public sector employees.

nrpw15-half-page-copyNational Retirement Planning Week® 2015 is a national effort to help consumers focus on their financial needs in retirement.

It’s important for public sector employees to plan and save for a comfortable retirement —whether they are just getting started in their career or have been working for their cities for some time. While many public sector employees will receive a defined benefit pension, it is unlikely to cover all retirement costs. And not all public employees will fully vest in their pension while some do not participate in Social Security.

Added savings to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, such as a 457 deferred compensation plan, and an IRA can be the difference between a financially adequate and successful retirement. Equipping public sector employees with these options and the educational resources to help them save for retirement is key.

Here are a few ways that local governments can help provide their city employees with the tools and resources to build a secure retirement:

Offer efficient ways for employees to enroll in the city’s retirement savings plan.

Many employees delay saving for different reasons, and among them is a perception that getting started can be complicated and take time. One way to combat this is to simplify the process by offering online enrollment, allowing employees to join the plan using a computer, smartphone, or tablet.

Research indicates that employees today, especially younger employees, will use whatever device is within reach, so making the savings plan accessible and easy to enroll across all hardware is important. As an example, an employee could use a smartphone to immediately enroll in the plan while attending an enrollment seminar or online webinar. Once enrolled, messaging is communicated across platforms that employees can use to easily increase contributions to their account. Increasing contributions by even $10 or $20 more can add up over time.

Another way to simplify the enrollment process is through a method called quick enrollment, which allows an employee to enroll in the plan by making just a few choices. The employee is defaulted into investments based on a predicted retirement age. After enrollment, additional education is provided along with direct access to their account so they can make changes and alter their account to reflect their personal goals. This strategy minimizes hurdles to enrollment and allows employee to begin saving for retirement.

Use automatic features to boost savings.

Another reason public sector employees may not begin saving for retirement is inertia; features such as automatic enrollment can address this plan challenge. Auto-enrollment is a feature in a retirement plan that allows an employer to “enroll” an eligible employee in the employer’s plan unless the employee affirmatively elects otherwise. The employee may choose not to contribute at the plan’s default percentage rate or decide to contribute a different amount. Auto-enrollment has proven effective in helping employees get started in saving for retirement.

In addition, some employers may want to consider offering an automatic escalation feature, allowing plan participants to increase contributions automatically over time. The study, “Using Automatic Escalation in Public Sector Retirement Plans to Increase Savings,” from the Center for State and Local Government Excellence, provides recommendations on how governments might incorporate such policies into their defined contribution retirement plans. More research on public sector workforce trends is available on the Center’s website at www.slge.org.

Develop and support an education curriculum with the goal of improving financial literacy.

In order to make smart decisions about their finances, employees need access to the proper financial tools and resources. They may want to understand basic investment concepts such as compounding interest, diversification, and the impact of inflation as well as their risk tolerance.

Knowing the tax treatment of these plans is also important information for city employees. They could also benefit from debt management education; lower debt means employees can focus more of their efforts toward saving for retirement. These concepts, and others, can be explained in a straightforward way when meeting with a local plan representative or through multiple media platforms to accommodate employees’ learning styles, including online resources such as a mobile app, video, calculators, and webinars. The RealizeRetirement® educational resources at www.icmarc.org/realize, contains a wide array of multimedia tools city employees can use, at any stage of their career.

Founded by the public sector for the public sector more than 40 years ago, ICMA-RC’s only mission is to help public sector employees build retirement security. Put simply, we work with public sector employees to help their employees save for the future and the concepts I have outlined are some of the ways that employers can help their employees have a successful retirement.

This article is intended for educational purposes only and is not to be construed or relied upon as investment advice. ICMA-RC does not offer specific tax or legal advice and shall not have any liability for any consequences that arise from reliance on this material. It is recommended that you consult with your personal financial adviser prior to implementing any tax or retirement strategy. Copyright © 2015 ICMA-RC. All rights reserved. AC: 0415-7702

AlexHannah_CSAbout the Author: Alex Hannah is responsible for education and marketing communication strategies for ICMA-RC, a financial services organization focused exclusively on serving public sector employees.

 

Regulatory Reform, Data Analytics and Local Food Systems: This Month in Economic Development

Our monthly roundup of the latest news in economic development filtered through a city-focused lens. Reading something interesting? Share it with @robbins617.

boston_1_fullsizeCities like Boston have recently begun a new chapter in economic development by taking an innovative approach to regulatory compliance, creating a win-win scenario in which the community is protected and businesses are encouraged to contribute to a vibrant, healthy economy. (Getty Images)

Grab your scissors, it’s time to cut red tape for local businesses. Whether it’s the dizzying paper trail, inexplicable permitting or licensing requirements, or an arbitrary approval timeline, the local regulatory process is ripe for reform. NLC profiled the three key strategies for untangling the knots of business regulations, and also highlighted how several cities are using a “more carrot, less stick” approach. Mayor Martin J. Walsh wrote a guest blog post for NLC on how he is making Boston more business friendly, including building an online permitting system. The Ash Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School recently launched a comprehensive, online guide to help cities plan out their own regulatory reform initiatives. (Side note, here’s a great article from The Week on other ways cities can support businesses).

Data analytics is driving more effective economic development… There were a couple great stories this past month about how data analytics is improving local government outcomes, particularly for economic development. For example, Transit Labs is partnering with Detroit to use city data to improve inefficient bus routes. Also Louisville and Raleigh are among a group of cities using public feedback on the restaurant review website Yelp to prioritize health inspections for businesses.

…and collecting city data is more valuable than ever. The data analytics movement is creating new dialogue around what is the most effective data for cities to collect and analyze. To this end, Smart Incentives shared advice on how to measure the actual impact of economic development incentive agreements, not just the costs associated with them. The Kauffman Foundation also released a briefing on the four best indicators to measure a city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. (NLC also has a performance management guidebook for cities).

Pioneering local food systems. Creating a local food ecosystem is a win-win situation for food providers and community member. The city of Portland, Maine, is emerging as a pioneer in the local food system scene. Mayor Michael Brennan developed the Healthy Sustainable Food Systems Initiative a couple years ago pledging that 50 percent of food at public schools, universities, and hospitals will be from local sources. To help other cities create their own local food ecosystems, the Council of Development Finance Agencies (CDFA) recently held a course on financing local food systems (follow @CDFA_Update to find out when it will be offered again).

Local government is still the leader in public sector job growth. This month’s Local Jobs Report found that, once again, local government is leading public sector job growth. Both federal and state governments lost jobs, but local government gained 3,000 jobs in March. Our analysis also reviews monthly employment trends from 2008 to now, and looks at whether or not cities are hiring back public safety positions that were lost after the recession due to budget cuts.

Religious freedom in Indiana? Talk about voting with your feet. In the wake of Indiana Governor Mike Pence’s passage of a controversial new religious freedom law, the business community is responding by cancelling expansion plans and prohibiting travel to the state. Angie’s List, headquartered in Indianapolis, is delaying a planned $40 million expansion set to create 1,000 local jobs over the next five years until the law’s ramifications are made clear. The list of other organizations that are banning activity in Indiana includes major companies like Apple, Salesforce, and Yelp. Meanwhile, Governor Pence is working to clarify the intent of the law, and its supporters are explaining that similar legislation already exists in 19 states without comparable pushback.

For a laugh. Or maybe for a shudder. The city of Austin wants you to visit its cemeteries. No, really. The city is developing a master plan for its burial grounds to turn the abandoned (and perhaps creepy?) spaces into public places where people choose to visit. The city’s plans include gravestone repairs, public programming, and other revitalization efforts.

What we’re reading. HuffPo column on how McDonald’s is fighting Seattle’s new minimum wage law. San Francisco Fed’s analysis of whether or not place-based policies like enterprise zones create jobs. A thought piece from Jerry Newfarmer on why people, not technology, are the unsung heroes of innovation in cities.

(Read the previous monthly roundups from January and February.)

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About the author: Emily Robbins is the Senior Associate of Finance and Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter: @robbins617.

Can Cities Beat the Fiscal Odds?

Can Cities Beat the Fiscal Odds?Beating the fiscal odds means cities are able to not only balance budgets, but continue to pioneer innovative solutions to the country’s most intractable challenges and lay the foundations for fiscal and economic growth. (Getty Images)

As the economy continues to show hopeful yet nascent signs of recovery, cities remain cautious about their fiscal condition. They continue to face rising costs of services, stark infrastructure needs, employee obligations, and omnipresent state and federal funding cuts and uncertainties. Still, cities have proven remarkably resilient. Despite a couple of high-profile cases, the vast majority of cities are balancing their budgets and making good on their debt.

But this hasn’t come easy or without consequences. The harsh reality is that municipal governments are operating at 90 percent of their pre-recession revenues, with little growth in sight and limited prospects for tapping into growth sectors within their local economies. Balancing local budgets in this environment is an ongoing process of revenue and expenditure choices that affect the types, levels and costs of services provided in a community. These choices often involve tradeoffs, even among investments critical to growth and innovation, such as infrastructure and workforce.

Take the city of Charlotte, for example. The city is currently looking to close a $21.7 million budget gap left by the state repeal of a business license tax and a surprise drop in property tax values. The city is reviewing its options, which include: pay freezes and eliminating positions; transferring some maintenance expenses from the general fund to a tourism fund (thereby decreasing funds for tourism activities); cutting funding to an arts and science program; and increasing development fees.

After all of this, the city will still be $10-15 million in the hole. Increasing property taxes may be politically infeasible, which likely means deeper and more widespread service cuts, higher fees, and less funding for programs and investments. No doubt, though, the city of Charlotte will find a way to close the gap, but at what cost to their future economic and fiscal health?

Even under these circumstances, our cities are leading change, progress and solutions to the most difficult issues of our time. Chattanooga is bridging the digital divide; Louisville and Buffalo are closing the skills gap; Seattle and San Francisco are raising the minimum wage. If we want grassroots innovations that are even more widespread and sustainable and that drive national economic growth, then cities need more than the fiscal cards they’ve been dealt. They need more than creative workarounds – but instead a consistent toolbox of resources to create the conditions that will accelerate their local and regional economies.

Their Hand: City-State Fiscal Structure

Cities, of course, are creatures of their states. The choices local governments can make are constrained by legal limits on their revenue raising authority.

In a new National League of Cities report, we examine the Cities and State Fiscal Structure across the 50 states and determine that a city’s “hand” is unique within each state and is a mix of:

  • Municipal fiscal authority: access to sales, income and property taxes. A mix of revenue sources is needed to provide cities with stability to buffer against economic downturns, and to allow them to capture revenue growth during periods of economic growth. No state uniformly authorizes its municipalities to utilize all three tax sources. Maps for export-03
  • Municipal revenue reliance and capacity: the amount of revenue (taxes and fees) a city generates that can be used to fund services and their share of resident needs. On average, U.S. municipalities derive approximately 71 percent of their general fund revenues from own-source revenues, including 24 percent from property taxes, 13 percent from sales taxes, 3 percent from income taxes and 32 percent from fees and charges.
  • State aid: the amount of state support for a municipality as a proportion of its total revenues. While it could be argued that too much state aid makes municipalities beholden to the state, in general, well-structured state aid can increase the capacity of all cities by equalizing the base support for cities that may lack sufficient resources. State aid has been decreasing despite increases in state mandates and cuts to state services that in turn force cities to pick up the slack (i.e., cuts to higher education or mental health services).
  • Tax and Expenditure Limits (TELs): constraints on local fiscal autonomy through voter imposed or state-imposed taxing or spending limitations, most frequently limits on property tax rates, growth in property value assessments, or caps on the total revenue allowed from these taxes. Forty-one states currently have some form of a TEL.

Incredibly, no state has afforded its cities an expansion of municipal fiscal authority since the start of the recession. Local fiscal health remains below pre-recession levels despite burgeoning broader economic recovery in part because authorization of more local revenue authority and other enhanced capacity measures are so rare.

States are balancing budgets too, and in some cases fulfilling tax reform promises on the backs of local governments.  Cities in Texas, for example, have traditionally traded lower levels of state aid for more local control but are seeing revenue threats as the state pursues caps on the local property tax. Last week, the state Senate Committee on Finance heard a bill, S.B. 182, which would lower the cap from 8 to 4 percent. This reduction would only provide a typical homeowner in McKinney, Texas a savings of $29.65 annually, but the city would have a revenue loss of $1.4 million. Similar threats are being considered in statehouses across the country.

Hold or Fold

Within these constraints, cities are using the tools available to them, and in some instances, implementing creative financing strategies. In the best case scenarios, strategies like social impact bonds, crowdsourcing, participatory budgeting and even ballot measures can help meet specific needs or increase engagement with the community. But they do not offer long-term, broad-based, reliable, general revenue streams.

Fees and charges have become an increasing proportion of local revenue due to a lack of access to other sources and the political difficulty of raising taxes. Fees and charges include development fees, waste disposal fees, court fees and service fees such as libraries and parks. They can be regressive, making it difficult for lower-income residents to access services, or impose charges on development that can negatively impact economic growth.

Beating the fiscal odds means cities are able to not only balance budgets, but continue to pioneer innovative solutions to the country’s most intractable challenges and lay the foundations for fiscal and economic growth. This requires more local tax authority, access to a mix of revenue sources, state aid that enhances the fiscal base of less-wealthy cities, and a revision of existing tax and expenditure limitations to make them less binding, or better yet, nonexistent.

We are gambling with the economic future of our country if we do not offer our cities more flexible fiscal structures that align with new economic realities and the responsibilities that we lay on their doorsteps.

Read the full 2015 Cities and State Fiscal Structure report here.

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About the Author: Christiana K. McFarland is NLC’s Research Director. Follow Christy on Twitter at @ckmcfarland.

Parks and Recreation Agencies Can Help Fill the Summer Nutrition Gap

This post was co-written by Kellie May. A version of this post appears on the National Recreation and Park Association’s blog, Open Space.

summer meals blog post(Getty Images)

In cities across the country, parks and recreation departments are often the go-to resource for quality programs and activities that help residents get active and enjoy an improved quality of life. Parks and recreation departments play a critical role in promoting health and wellness, especially among children and young people. This is particularly evident in the programs they provide to reach and engage children when they are not in school.

One of the most critical times of the year to keep children healthy is during the summer, when many children may not have access to healthy food and may not be as physically active as they are during the school year. Providing a nutritious meal to hungry kids is an important way to ensure that they are able to reach their full potential both in and out of school.

Over 21 million low-income children receive free or reduced-price meals during the school year to help them meet their daily nutrition needs – but only three million of these children are getting these meals during the summer, making the work that local parks and recreation agencies do to fill the gap during out-of-school times that much more critical.

The Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), a federally funded, state administered program, enables parks and recreation departments and other entities the ability to provide free, healthy meals to children and teens in low-income communities. Parks and recreation departments often maximize their programs by pairing nutrition education with physical activities.

Serving meals at parks and recreation sites that provide physical and enrichment activities is a comprehensive approach to improving a child’s health. This approach also contributes to a community’s financial bottom line and provides a safe space for kids to play while getting a nutritious, free meal. Some of the benefits of summer meal programs include:

Kids Get Much More than a Meal
The outdoor activities and educational enrichment programs provided by parks and recreation departments can help improve a child’s physical health and contribute to his or her intellectual, emotional and social well-being.

The Saint Paul, Minn., Parks and Recreation Department provides enrichment programming at many of its meal sites. Activities such as art, cooking, science, theatre, special-themed event days, and indoor and outdoor games and sports are offered. The meals are served before and after the summer programming, and are a part of their afterschool programs during the school year.

This gives young people plenty of time to eat, socialize, and participate in a variety of activities. Parents who seek free or low-cost quality programming recognize the value of what is offered and consistently send their children to these programs. Many youth go to the sites because of the relationships they develop with the staff as well as the fun and varied programming.

The Local Economy Gets a Boost
When cities participate in federally funded meal programs such as the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) and SFSP, the revenue provided by these programs can help boost the local economy. In addition, parks and recreation departments that offer afterschool programming and participate in the CACFP can move straight into serving summer meals by also participating in SFSP. This diminishes the amount of administrative paperwork required to operate both meal programs – and, if a site is providing programming through the afterschool meal program, they can easily transition to providing that same programming during the summer.

In 2014, the Montgomery County, Md., Department of Parks reached over 8,000 young people in five of their largest youth-serving programs. They have seen success in establishing a new summer program, Food, Fun and Fitness, which pairs drop-in physical and artistic activity with free meals for children under 18. This program has not only benefitted the children in the area but has resulted in a positive economic outcome for the community.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 20,000 kids under 18 live in poverty in Montgomery County. During the summer of 2014, the department of parks was able to serve 75,728 snacks and meals to these children. The county estimates that meals and snacks served through USDA meal programs like Food, Fun and Fitness have a yearly positive economic impact of over $600 per child for families that take full advantage of such opportunities.

A Safe Environment for Kids
Parks serve as public spaces for recreation and civic engagement, and can help improve quality of life in cities. When parks and recreation agencies provide summer meal programs for children, they are also providing parents with peace of mind; parents can rest assured knowing that their child is in a supervised and safe environment, often in their own neighborhood.

In Philadelphia, a city that serves nearly one million meals each summer, the Parks and Recreation Department operates “playstreets” in conjunction with their meal program. Playstreets are small, residential streets that are blocked to traffic during weekdays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. These temporary neighborhood “parks” provide children a safe place that is close to home where they can play and enjoy a healthy meal during the summer.

To find a summer meal program site near you, call the National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-HUNGRY.

Jamie Nash bio photo
About the Author:
Jamie Nash is Senior Associate of Benefit Outreach in the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. To learn more about how local government leaders can support out-of-school time meal programs, contact
Jamie.

Kellie May Head shot
About the Author:
Kellie May is a Senior Program Manager at the National Recreation and Park Association. To learn more about the important role of parks and recreation in helping cities provide healthy meals during out-of-school times, contact Kellie.

The Sharing Economy and the Future of Cities – What’s Next?

This post was co-authored with Lauren Hirshon. Brooks Rainwater and Lauren Hirshon recently published the National League of Cities report “Cities, the Sharing Economy and What’s Next.”

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The sharing economy is impacting cities. Around the world, innovative sharing economy technologies and business models are redefining how city dwellers access resources and consume goods. City leaders welcome innovation in their cities – but as regulatory challenges continue to arise, many would like a better understanding of how best to approach the growing sharing economy.

Sharing Economy cover minThe National League of Cities report Cities, the Sharing Economy and What’s Next provides an analysis of what is currently happening within the sharing economy in American cities. In order to explore the multifaceted nature of this space, the report focuses on five key themes: innovation, economic development, equity, safety and implementation.

The sharing economy is impacting the delivery of goods and services across a wide range of industries. Jeremiah Owyang’s Collaborative Economy Honeycomb demonstrates how this space has grown to include 12 distinct areas from space and transportation to logistics, learning and more.

Uber, Lyft, SideCar and other Transportation Network Companies (TNC’s) have dramatically disrupted travel patterns in cities. For many, hailing a cab or calling for a ride has been replaced with the act of opening a mobile application, requesting a ride, and tracking a little car graphic as it makes its way across a map to your location.

On the homesharing front, Airbnb, HomeAway, VRBO and other companies are shaking up travel – specifically, the manner in which people make use of resources like apartments, homes, spare bedrooms or even castles.

Meanwhile, other platforms and concepts like TaskRabbit (a mobile marketplace to hire people to do jobs and tasks), SnapGoods (a site for lending and borrowing high-end household items), and Feastly (a marketplace for dining experiences) are taking off as well.

Why Sharing

Also described as collaborative consumption, the collaborative economy, or the peer-to-peer economy, the sharing economy is growing and changing the way people use and consume resources and services. But it is also disrupting local regulatory environments. With this major shift occurring in urban hubs, all eyes are on cities for global leadership.

True to their reputation as laboratories for experimentation, many cities are testing different approaches and developing unique, locally-driven solutions to new challenges. While there is no status quo – and the relative novelty of the issue still precludes long-term, tested best practices – city leaders are springing into action to consider how these platforms and services will impact major issues in cities.

Cities, the Sharing Economy and What’s Next deals most specifically with two facets of the sharing economy: transportation and space, or the areas generally referred to as ridesharing and homesharing. In our report we highlighted themes, insights and lessons learned that emerged from conversations with current and former city leaders from around the country who are developing new strategies and tactics to regulate this evolving sharing space.

While there are still many unanswered questions, we’re certainly working towards clarity on the important topics to consider in this research. Depending on community priorities, neighborhood compositions, available housing stock, tourism demands, existing transportation networks, major events and other issues, the cities we interviewed chose to take different approaches. Thus, a wide spectrum of solutions has emerged.

For example, when considering ridesharing safety issues, some cities like Dallas have opted to develop a new set of insurance requirements. The city of Dallas created a novel three-phase approach to ensure that TNCs had insurance coverage 24/7. Other cities have decided to revisit their policies for taxicab companies.

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Regarding the manner in which these services impact equity and access, some cities have created funds to support wheel-chair accessible transportation. Others have included clauses in ordinances explicitly stating that services cannot be denied to certain passengers. Many are looking for ways to capture new data to track areas like pick-up and drop-off locations.

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Across the interviews we conducted for our report, many city leaders expressed wanting access to more data from sharing economy companies. Unlike most traditional service providers, the business model of sharing economy companies is predicated on data and the ability to match end user customers to vehicles or available housing. The availability of this data – for cities to better understand equity and access issues, as well as for the purposes of developing enhanced transit systems – is a theme that warrants further exploration.

Cities are also taking a varied approach to addressing the new economic reality created by sharing economy businesses. In a number of cities such as Austin, Texas, Washington, D.C., Madison, Wisc., Portland, Ore., Chicago and San Francisco, homesharing companies have begun to include local hotel taxes in their rate structures – either voluntarily or as part of local regulations on homesharing.

Some cities have not yet reached agreement on these issues, and the onus is on hosts to pay appropriate taxes on their revenues. In Washington, D.C., the recent TNC legislation included a provision requiring TNCs to pay taxes equaling 1 percent of all revenues from trips originating from within the city; annual revenue totals are estimated to be in the millions. In Seattle, TNCs must pay a fee of 10 cents for each ride that originates in the city. Other cities, such as Dallas, decided not to touch the issue of revenue capture when drafting legislation.

Our report provides additional details on each of these issues, the strategies city officials are developing, and their reasoning behind their approach. While our report doesn’t provide all the answers, it is meant to be a primer for what is currently happening in this arena – and we hope it offers some sense of comfort that city leaders are not alone in grappling with substantial new regulatory challenges.

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We also hope our findings inspire city officials to ask the tough questions. The sharing economy is disruptive, and it’s moving quickly. It’s changing how we get around, where we stay, how we manage tasks, what we buy – and sometimes the changes occurring can be overwhelming for city officials.

However, the presentation of these new challenges offers city leaders the unique opportunity to not only think about present concerns but also to look to the future. City leaders should consider the new opportunities these platforms and services are creating to transform approaches and operating models so that cities can become even more agile, responsive and innovative themselves.

The sharing economy will only continue to grow and evolve as cities serve as laboratories for these ever-changing technologies and business models. There is great promise in the rapid ascent of sharing economy services in our nation’s cities. The best thing that city policymakers can do is keep an open mind about how the new economy might be beneficial with the right regulatory framework in place – because sharing is here to stay.

About the Authors:

Brooks Rainwater bio photoBrooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksRainwater.

 

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Lauren Hirshon is the Director of Consulting at the University of Pennsylvania’s Fels Institute of Government, and a public sector strategist, coach and innovator. Follow Lauren on Twitter at @LaurenHirshon.

City Leaders are Taking Up the Charge of Juvenile Justice Reform

This is the first in a series of blog posts providing ongoing updates as more cities – especially those in NLC’s Municipal Leadership for Juvenile Justice Reform technical assistance initiative – create new examples of successful reform.

Kid - blog(Getty Images)

As cities strive to create fair and effective responses to young people in the juvenile justice system, everyone benefits from reduced future crime and improved outcomes for young residents. We see new examples of progress toward reform emerging in four key areas:

  • Reducing racial and ethnic disparities that begin at the first point of contact between the system and youth – arrest. This reduction can often be accomplished through improved police training and arrest protocols.
  • Opportunities to improve outcomes for youth accused of non-criminal offenses, such as skipping school or running away, by addressing the needs of these youth in their communities rather than sending them to detention facilities.
  • Mechanisms for sharing information and data across city agencies to support informed policymaking, align services for youth and measure success.
  • Structures that connect youth with a continuum of community-based services so that they are held accountable for their actions in ways that improve their life outcomes and reduce the risk of future criminal activity.

These opportunities have frequently been the focus of conversation among the six cities participating in the Municipal Leadership for Juvenile Justice Reform technical assistance initiative. At the recent Mayors’ Institute on Children and Families, hosted by the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, five mayors discussed juvenile justice reform opportunities, analyzed data demonstrating the need for reform in their cities, and took up the mantle of juvenile justice reform champions.

Finally, in case you haven’t seen it yet, NLC’s recently released municipal action guide, Increasing Public Safety and Improving Outcomes for Youth through Juvenile Justice Reform introduced city leaders to opportunities for city-led juvenile justice reform. The guide also highlights several local examples, including innovative programs and policies in Gainesville, Fla., Minneapolis and Baltimore.

Through this blog series and other resources, NLC will continue to build on the information included in the guide throughout the year, thanks to support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change initiative.

headshot_LFurrAbout the Authors: Laura Furr is the senior associate for Juvenile Justice Reform in the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Laura on Twitter at @laura_furr. Stay engaged by subscribing to the juvenile justice reform newsletter! Email Laura to start receiving it.  

Municipal Fiber and the Digital Divide: A Modest Proposal

This is a guest post by Angela Siefer and Bill Callahan.

fiber_optics_2With a little effort, city leaders could develop account-sharing models and policies that encourage smart, grassroots solutions to the affordable broadband problem at little or no public cost. (Getty Images)

The explosion of interest in community-owned fiber on the part of elected officials and technology leaders has created an opportunity that few have noticed: cities could leverage these investments to help lower the barriers to home Internet access that still keep low-income, less educated and older citizens out of the digital mainstream. This could be easily accomplished, at it would cost cities practically nothing.

Here’s how: cities could allow neighboring households and community groups to share that terrific bandwidth – and its cost – by using community-owned fiber to power grassroots Wi-Fi networks.

Almost all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and community-owned fiber networks employ Terms of Service language that prohibits customers from extending their networks across property lines to share access with their neighbors. City-owned networks can expand the possibilities for affordable broadband access in disadvantaged neighborhoods simply by changing their Terms of Service to allow network sharing.

As demonstrated by the rise of Google Fiber, the advent of city-owned networks selling 100 megabit or gigabit Internet access for $75, $90 or $100 a month raises the competitive ante on broadband speed and price for traditional cable and telecommunications ISPs. This is great news for tech-savvy middle- and upper-income residents, as well as for data-dependent businesses and community anchor institutions like libraries and hospitals.

But in many city neighborhoods, we’re faced with the stubborn fact that large numbers of mostly low-income citizens still don’t have home Internet access at any speed.

The American Community Survey for 2013 reports data for 575 U.S. “places” with more than 15,000 households. 282 of these communities – nearly half – reported no fixed broadband connections (defined as any connection beyond dial-up or mobile) in at least 30 percent of their homes. 151 reported that at least one fourth of their households have no home Internet access of any kind – no dial-up, no mobile access; nothing. Not surprisingly, these Internet-free households are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods where residents are least able to afford the $30, $40 or $50 monthly cost of an Internet service subscription.

Of course, low-income households that can’t afford current DSL or cable Internet services have little to gain from the availability of fiber broadband service that costs twice as much.

But suppose that cost could be split among five, ten or twenty users?

One of the great value propositions of Big Bandwidth is its shareability. There’s not much a single household can do with a gigabit connection that couldn’t be accomplished with a tenth (100 mbps), a twentieth (50 mbps) or even a fortieth (25 mbps) of that capacity. But put that gigabit connection into an office, a call center or library where forty, fifty or more users share it, and its value becomes apparent. All the users sharing that gigabit start connecting to the Internet at speeds far greater than their “shares” (because of how network routers optimize and balance packet streams) – and at a total cost far below the equivalent number of single-user accounts.

The economic advantage of networked access sharing has been so obvious for so long that no business or organization would even think about buying individual Internet service accounts for employees working at the same location – and no ISPs would waste time trying to sell them. Since home broadband took root a decade ago, the same has become true of households; we provide for our family members’ need to connect simultaneously in different parts of our homes with routers, network cables and Wi-Fi – not by subscribing to multiple Internet service accounts.

ISPs are happy to encourage all this access sharing within their customers’ premises. But they draw the line – a hard, bright line written into their Terms of Service – when it comes to letting customers share their network with the neighbors. The reasons are commercial, not technical; ISPs make money on account charges, and they don’t want their customers to get ideas about avoiding them. It’s a profit-driven business model.

But municipal broadband networks don’t have to follow that model.

Over the past eight years, cheap, modular “open mesh” Wi-Fi devices have transformed the possibilities for community networking at the very local level – the apartment building, housing estate or city block. Any building owner or group of neighbors can acquire a few of these devices for less than a hundred dollars each, distribute them at 100-200 foot intervals around a target area, connect at least one of them to the Internet, and start distributing robust, secure Wi-Fi Internet throughout the area.

Open mesh networks are providing public or “house” Internet access in thousands of hotels, apartment complexes, campuses and campgrounds. These networks are also found in some public housing estates and high-rises, installed by local housing authorities who understand the importance of affordable Internet for tenants’ income and education prospects.

There’s no technical reason why block clubs and community organizations in lower-income neighborhoods can’t use this same cheap, off-the-shelf technology to create truly affordable local broadband access, by sharing connections and costs among neighboring households. But unlike the people running apartment buildings, campgrounds and hotels, community residents will almost always find that Terms of Service restrict them from sharing bandwidth with their neighbors, at any price.

Municipal broadband providers can solve this problem with the stroke of a pen, simply by allowing neighborhood account sharing in their Terms of Service.

With a little effort, city leaders could take the next step: Working with neighborhood leaders and digital inclusion advocates to develop account-sharing models and policies that encourage smart, grassroots solutions to the affordable broadband problem at little or no public cost.

Angela Siefer 150wAbout the Authors: Angela Siefer is a digital inclusion consultant and an adjunct fellow at the Pell Center at Salve Regina University. She envisions a world in which all members of society have the skills and the resources to use the Internet for the betterment of themselves and their communities.

bill callahan 150wBill Callahan is a Cleveland-based community organizer who has worked for the past twenty years on grassroots training and access strategies to close the digital divide. He currently serves as the director of Connect Your Community, a collaborative of community-based digital inclusion advocates in greater Cleveland and Detroit.

2015 National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation Starts April 1

This is a guest post by Steve Creech.

mayor's challenge for water conservationCities with the highest participation in the 2015 National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation not only discover ways they can reduce the strain on water systems, but they qualify to win over $100,000 in prizes as well. (photo: The Wyland Foundation)

Water shortages may be one of the most dramatic headlines in the news, but cities everywhere are facing mounting challenges to the tune of nearly $1 trillion to address aging water systems, eliminate water waste, and secure a legacy of sustainable water use for our communities.

The National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation gives local governments a consumer-friendly way to rev up residential interest in addressing those issues, from promoting water and energy efficiency to waste reduction and ecosystem health. Held annually from April 1-30, the nonprofit challenge encourages cities nationwide to see who can be the most “water-wise.”

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings (pictured) and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will join together in Dallas on April 9 to promote the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation. (photo: The Wyland Foundation)

Mayors rally residents to take action by pledging to conserve more water and other natural resources at mywaterpledge.com. Residents, in turn, rally their families, friends, colleagues and neighbors. Cities with the highest participation not only discover ways they can reduce the strain on water systems, they qualify to win over $100,000 in prizes, including efficient irrigation products, water-saving appliances, and even a Grand Prize Toyota Prius Plug-in. The campaign gets national promotion all month long in USA Today, and winning cities are recognized in a special segment on the Weather Channel with Al Roker. There’s even a classroom edition for schools.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, winner of the 2013 Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation. (photo: The Wyland Foundation)

The campaign is presented nationally by the Wyland Foundation and Toyota, with support from the U.S. EPA, the National League of Cities, and the Toro Company. During the most recent campaign, mayors, city leaders and local water utilities led an effort among residents across 3,600 cities in all 50 states to take 277,742 specific actions over the following year to change the way they use water in their homes, yards and communities.

Translated, those online pledges meant potential reductions in water waste by 1.4 billion gallons. As residents conserve, it also means less money spent on transporting and generating the electricity that brings water to homes, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and less impact on the nation’s already overburdened water infrastructure.

Best of all, supplemental outreach campaigns like the Mayor’s Challenge bring together elected officials, companies, communities and individuals working together to protect and conserve the limited supply of water we have for the future health of our economy and environment.

Cities can participate in the 2015 National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation by signing an online letter of support, which includes complete details about the program, or by calling (949) 643-7070 to request participation information.

Headshot1-CMartinAbout the Author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at the NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

Three Approaches for Untangling the Knots of Local Business Regulations

knot(Getty Images)

Oh, what a tangled knot cities can weave with local business regulations. Whether it’s the dizzying application paper trail at city hall, inexplicable permitting or licensing requirements, or an arbitrary approval timeline, this is a government problem that is ripe for a solution. Thankfully, a number of cities are creating a path forward on regulatory reform.

The scope of this problem, although difficult to fully quantify, is substantial for both business owners and local governments. In a recent Thumbtack Small Business Friendliness Survey, the top frustration reported by business owners is a complicated regulatory process. The time spent navigating the current broken system translates into lost income and delayed openings for new businesses.

Meanwhile, the economic health of cities suffers when local business owners and entrepreneurs cannot open their doors quickly, or even worse, decided to locate elsewhere that is more business-friendly. The US Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Regulatory Climate Index recommends streamlining permitting and licensing as a necessary reform for encouraging entrepreneurship, job creation, and overall economic growth.

Cities are taking three approaches to untangling the knots of local business regulation.

Reviewing existing regulations, eliminating ones without a purpose. First, many cities are making sure their local business regulations are actually serving a purpose. Regulations can sometimes be superfluous (for example, an “open flame” permit to place votive candles on restaurant tables) or contradictory to county or state guidelines.

To help cities confront this issue, the Ash Center for Democratic Governance at Harvard Kennedy School launched a regulatory reform framework that provides guiding principles to understand the origin and purpose of a regulation and how to streamline permitting and licensing (side note: it also shares information on using predictive monitoring to prioritize inspections where they are needed most).

Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed a new commissioner to modernize Chicago’s entire municipal code and eliminate unnecessary regulations, and also signed licensing reform legislation that reduced the number of business licenses by 60 percent. The Seattle Restaurant Reform Initiative program formed a team of city, county, and state representatives to tackle regulatory inefficiencies for the local restaurant industry. Kansas City’s Dead Letter Office website is crowdsourcing ideas for regulations that are impractical and no longer serving a valid purpose.

Improving interdepartmental coordination and customer service at city hall. Opening a business often requires paperwork from separate city offices, and these applications can get passed around to different departments like a game of pinball. No wonder the process is frustrating.

Cincinnati reduces this administrative headache, and more quickly process permitting and licensing requests, by using “jump teams” of key staff from across the necessary departments to support the application process from start to finish. Kansas City created the KCBizcare office to offer in-person support and encouragement for business owners navigating the regulatory process. The KCBizcare team serves as an advocate for business owners who are working with city departments, and helps monitor the progress of applications. The one-stop-shop Small Business Center in Chicago has an express lane that streamlines specific types of requests (for example, updating account information or printing a new license) and provides assistance in 15 minutes or less.

Making the regulatory process more transparent and easily accessible. Business permitting and licensing process works better when expectations are clearly communicated, information is easily accessible, and the application process is available online.

The San Francisco Business Portal is a comprehensive website with “starter kits” by industry on how to start a business in the city. New York City also has online “starter guides.” The Seattle Restaurant Success Initiative developed an infographic that serves as a roadmap for starting a restaurant.

Lastly, some cities are moving towards putting the actual permitting and licensing application process online. Boston, Kansas City, and Denver have all secured contracts to move from paper to an online interface. The ultimate goal is to enable business owners and entrepreneurs to apply for all permits and licenses quickly and efficiently, and track their approval status, through one streamlined city website.

By working on one or all of these reform approaches local governments can create a regulatory environment that allows small businesses and entrepreneurs to spring into action, instead of getting tangled along the way.

Robbins_small (2)About the author: Emily Robbins is the Senior Associate, Finance and Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter: @robbins617.

Climate Change Update: FOCUS 2015 and Preparing for COP-21 in Paris

This post was co-authored with Allison Paisner.

FOCUS 2015NLC Second Vice President Matt Zone (sixth from left) pauses for a photo with other elected officials at the FOCUS (Forum Of Communities for Urban Sustainability) 2015 event at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. on March 6, 2015. The event was designed around a discussion of how cities and local governments can fight climate change and provide residents with a higher quality of life. (photo: FOCUS 2015)

This December, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will meet in Paris for COP-21 (the 21st session of the Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC) in hopes of negotiating a new, international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions. Whether you are optimistic or doubtful about the prospects for a global accord among the various nations, it is clear that cities and towns will continue to be at the center of any effort to mitigate or adapt to the challenges posed by climate change.

That is why the French Embassy in Washington, D.C. recently hosted FOCUS-15: A Forum of Communities for Urban Sustainability. The mission was to spark thinking, create networks and establish bonds between local actors prior to the UN Conference of Parties in Paris this December. The event brought together French and American leaders from public, private and philanthropic sectors, including nearly a dozen representatives from the National League of Cities (NLC).

NLC Second Vice President Matt Zone and Henrietta Davis, both of whom were part of the NLC COP-15 delegation in Copenhagen, noted how much attitudes had improved in recognizing the role cities play in the process. Just six years ago, all of the attention was given to national governments, and local leaders were treated no differently than small, non-profit interest groups. Looking at COP-21 though, local leaders are closer to center stage.

Workshops centered on the pillars of urban sustainability: waste and water, energy, transportation and land use, resiliency, and urban policy and community empowerment. Because cities are engines of innovation where commitments to sustainability develop at the local level, the forum emphasized the need to for cities and regional authorities to coordinate policies and disseminate best practices as key actors. Communities also need to educate their residents and serve as facilitators for change by equipping citizens with the tools necessary to participate in the decision making process.

Green investments geared towards climate change mitigation, adaptation and resiliency involve high short-term costs – the results of which only translate in the long term. Policymakers need to understand this tradeoff and make fiscally and environmentally responsible decisions that balance the cost- and results-oriented spheres for the future of tomorrow.

Highlights from the FOCUS 2015 conference in Washington, D.C.

Other sustainability trends recognized in French and American cities over the two-day event included the need to accommodate population growth while limiting urban sprawl, transitioning away from a carbon-based transportation system, the inclusion of natural systems and green infrastructure as sustainable alternatives to depreciating built infrastructure, and working within the institutional framework for research and support of city innovation.

Partnerships between local & federal governments and the public & private sector are crucial stimulants to sustainable development, providing means for innovation, access to financial capital, and broadening the scale of influence.

Based on the dialogue between national and local actors throughout the conference, it is clear that the gradual transition to sustainable cities will involve healthy competition and inspire a race to the top.

More immediately, though, there is significant preparation and progress to be made prior to COP-21 this December. With limited authority as local and regional governments, cities need a “Paris deal;” sub-national actors need to bring clear objectives to the discussion, outline what is possible, and show their political support for an equitable and achievable agreement.

Whatever is decided in Paris will not be the end of the road, however. With luck – and the support of cities and towns – it will be only the beginning of a new and ambitious era in urban sustainability.

About the Authors:

Headshot1-CMartin Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at the NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

 

Allison Paisner headshot Allison Paisner is an intern with the Sustainable Cities Institute at the National League of Cities. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.