Comparing Cities’ Performance: A Global Breakthrough

This is a guest post by Neal Peirce.

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How to compare the performance of cities across the world?  What’s the particulate matter in a city’s air?  Debt service as a percent of a city’s own revenue?  Green area per 100,000 population?  Number of firefighters by the same per 100,000 gauge?

Now, for the first time ever, a clear, internationally agreed on set of indicators has been announced.  And it has the seal of approval of the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization — “ISO” –the globally recognized arbiter of standards in every area from electrical engineering to financial management.

The story of how the ISO standard was put together over several years, the effort spearheaded by Patricia McCarney of the University of Toronto’s Global Cities Indicators Facility, was reported in an article on the new Citiscope.org website.

The genesis of the effort was a challenge by World Bank officials in 2008.  Nine pilot cities, including Bogota, Toronto, Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte put together an initial list of some 115 indicators.  But through a series of technical committee meetings around the world, the proposed indicators were examined and revised repeatedly for quality and relevance.  The list was finally winnowed down to 46 validated by the ISO as its official “ISO 37120″ standard and announced last spring.

The new open standards are for cities to learn and compare — but will also place pressure on them to perform well.  Friends, political opponents, the media will all be checking.  What’s the share of the city population that lives in slums– especially in comparison to similar cities, at home or abroad?  Energy consumption of public buildings per year?  Percentage of a city’s solid waste that is recycled?  Annual number of public transportation trips per capita?  Green acres per 100,000 population?

Supporters also claim the ISO will be a significant game changer, encouraging higher levels of city service delivery.   The verified data could improve cities’ credit and bond ratings, appealing to investment decision-makers.  Cities with strong ratings may also be strengthened in appealing for national government assistance and tax sharing.

Cities won’t be obliged to share their data and join the system.  But they may well find themselves under pressure from citizen, business, academic and the media insisting they use the ISO standards so that their performance can be benchmarked clearly against peer cities, both in-country and — in today’s increasingly globalized economy — across the globe.

“It’s a potential game changer for world cities and everyone who works for cities, for journalists evaluating city performance, for the World Bank in determining grants and more,” notes Dan Hoornweg, former World Bank official, now a professor at the University of Toronto and an early proponent of world city standard setting.

A new “World Council on City Data” has been formed to verify data cities submit and guide the process.  The council’s member cities include London, Rotterdam, Shanghai, Dubai, Chicago, Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and others.

But there’s little doubt: not every city, not every urban expert, will agree on the indicators and processes.  But discussion is welcome.

Next week (November 11), in a webinar jointly sponsored by Citiscope and Meeting of the Minds, there’ll be an opportunity to hear more about the new ISO and its processes from key city players, plus a chance to debate its methods.  Speakers will include McCarney as well as Alvaro Lima (Boston Redevelopment Authority), Andrew Collinge (Greater London Authority, and Maria Belen Perez Chada (city of Buenos Aires).  For details and the event password, check this website: http://cityminded.org/cal/new-urban-indicators-city-services-quality-life/.

Neal-Peirce-CSAbout the Author: Neal Peirce is the editor-in-chief of Citiscope

Federal Agency Notice-And-Comment: Supreme Court to Decide When It’s Required

State and local governments often regulate in the same space as federal agencies and are often regulated by federal agencies.

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Regulations and rules.  What is the difference?  Under the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) regulations interpret statutes and federal agencies adopt them only after notice-and-comment.  Rules interpret regulations and are promulgated without-notice and-comment.  But what if an agency changes a rule;   should it first seek notice and comment?  The Supreme Court will decide this issue in Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association.

The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) argues yes in its amicus brief, which agrees with the lower court that significant changes to an interpretation of a regulation amounts to effectively changing the regulation, which requires notice-and-comment.  Local governments frequently have been surprised by interpretive rules that have changed regulations.  NLC joined the SLLC’s brief.

In 2006 the Department of Labor (DOL) issued an opinion letter stating that mortgage loan officers who work more than 40 hours a week were exempt from overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  In 2010 DOL withdrew the opinion letter in an “Administrator’s Interpretation” that reached the opposite conclusion.  Since 1997 the D.C. Circuit’s rule has been that if an interpretive rule is definitive and an agency makes a significant change to it, the agency must first conduct notice-and-comment rulemaking.

State and local governments often regulate in the same space as federal agencies and are often regulated by federal agencies.  The SLLC’s amicus brief argues that requiring notice-and-comment for significant changes to interpretations of regulations will maintain the balance between agency discretion and reliance interests the APA was designed to protect.  It also argues that allowing state and local governments to weigh in on problematic interpretations is far more efficient than state and local governments challenging them through litigation.  And allowing greater state and local participation in the process will avoid or at least limit the risk to federalism posed by ever-expanding agency authority.

The SLLC’s brief discusses a number of examples where federal agencies have changed positions in interpretive rules.  In 1993, DOL issued a series of opinion letters concluding that career firefighters who volunteered their services to private organizations had to be paid extra by whatever public entity employed them.  DOL then changed its mind in 2001.  And in a 2011 guidance letter the Environmental Protection Agency disallowed wastewater discharge “mixing zones,” while regulations previously allowed them.  This guidance letter was successfully challenged in the Eighth Circuit in Iowa League of Cities v. EPA.

SLLC’s brief which was joined by the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, the International City/County Management Association, the United States Conference of Mayors, the International Municipal Lawyers AssociationGovernment Finance Officers Association, National Public Employer Labor Relations Association, and the International Public Management Association for Human Resources.

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About the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Have City Finances Recovered?

At the release event for NLC’s annual City Fiscal Conditions, it was revealed that although the worst is behind, city finances have not yet reached full recovery.

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Most accounts of the current state of economic and fiscal health go something like this: stabilizing but not yet returned to pre-recession levels. The media guys (and gals) hate it. There doesn’t seem to be much of a story when all we are seeing is incremental change. But when you think about persistently stagnant growth, the real question becomes, how far are we from full recovery?

At a release event today for NLC’s annual City Fiscal Conditions, it was revealed that although the worst is behind, city finances have not yet reached full recovery.

The cost and demands of services, pension, healthcare and infrastructure are on the rise. Federal aid and accompanying mandates are in flux and create uncertainty for local governments. Revenue options are constrained by economic conditions, state limitations and political culture.

Compounding these fiscal stresses are new demographic trends, housing and labor market changes, and the rise of new and disruptive industries, all of which underscore the misalignment between traditional revenue sources — property, income and sales taxes –and the economic activity that drives them.

So, how do we know how far city budgets are from full recovery? What are the key vital signs of city fiscal health?

The outlook of city finance officers, general fund revenues, workforce and personnel, and ending balances offer a unique window into recovery at the local level.

Outlook of City Finance Officers

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In 2014, 80% of city finance officers report that they are better able to meet the financial needs of their community this year than last. In fact, more city finance officers report a positive outlook this year than in the 29-year history of the survey.

On the flip side, this finding also means that 80% of cities across the country were worse off last year, indicative of magnitude of the recession and the depths to which cities sank throughout the recessionary period.

General Fund Revenues

General fund revenues grew modestly in 2013, and were the first post-recession year over year growth in revenues. However, revenues are projected to stagnate as cities close the books on 2014.

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To gain more perspective on how the general fund revenues are faring pre and post-recession, we created an index using 2006 as the base year. 2006 was the pre-recession peak in revenues, the low came in 2012 when revenues were 88% of 2006 levels.

The first post-recession increase in revenues didn’t come until 2013 but in 2014 are still only projected to be around 90% of the 2006 revenue base.

Revenues are not yet at full recovery and the growth in revenues appears to be stagnating.

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Another window in general fund revenues is to take a closer look at the drivers of the general fund: property, sales and income taxes.

During the recent recession, all three sources of tax revenue declined together due to the severity and length of the recession. Property tax revenue is anticipated to increase slightly in 2014 as collections catch up with improvements in the real estate market. This will be the first increase coming out of the recession.

Sales tax and income tax revenues continue to grow in 2013, but are projected to slow as cities close the books on fiscal year 2014. This is indicative not only of a harsh winter, but also the type of employment recovery we are seeing, with low wage jobs dominating growth.

Municipal Workforce

Speaking of jobs, throughout the recession, many cities implemented some combination of personnel and workforce-related cuts, including hiring freezes and layoffs, in an effort to reduce costs.

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The good news: for the first time post-recession, more cities are increasing rather than decreasing the size their municipal workforces. The bad news: in the context of returning to full recovery, there are still ½ million fewer local government jobs today than there were in 2008.

This is particularly troublesome given the state of the mid-wage and mid-skill jobs crisis we are experiencing today.

Ending Balances

Ending Balances, or reserves, provide a financial cushion for cities to help balance budgets or to use toward a major planned project. Bond underwriters also look at a city’s reserves as an indicator of how likely the city is to make good on its debt.

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Ending balances are on a positive trajectory, at almost 22% of expenditures in 2013. Prior to the recession, ending balances hovered around a high of 25% of expenditures, indicating that reserves have not yet hit pre-recession levels.

So, as we take stock key city fiscal vitals, we are starting to see city finances turn the corner coming out of the recession, but as revenues, workforce, and ending balances indicate, they have not yet returned to full recovery.

For first time since the recession, general fund revenues are increasing, but are projected to stagnate in 2014. More cities are hiring, helping to close the mid-wage, mid-skill gap, but we are still ½ million jobs away from pre-recession levels. Ending balances are showing a positive trajectory, but again, still have not caught up.

Cities were at the forefront of the Great Recession and are making their way back through tough choices, innovation and partnerships with the private sector, nonprofits, and others. Given persistent constraints on city budgets, however, the future is anything but certain.

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

The Supreme Court and Simple Math

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Its simple math. Really. But will the Supreme Court do it? The lower court refused.

The question in Alabama Department of Revenue v. CSX Transportation is whether a state discriminates against rail carriers in violation of federal law even when rail carriers pay less in total state taxes than motor carriers? No, argues a State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) Supreme Court in an amicus brief. Forty-two states exempt motor carriers from sales tax on diesel fuel. This case is relevant to local government because a number of cities and counties in Alabama impose an additional sales tax on railroad diesel fuel.

Rail carriers (railroads) in Alabama pay a four percent sales tax on diesel fuel. Motor carriers (trucks) pay an excise tax of 19-cents per gallon and no sales tax. The Railroad Revitalization and Regulatory Reform Act (4-R) prohibits state and local governments from imposing taxes that discriminate against railroads. Since CSX filed its complaint, railroads paid less in sales tax than trucks paid in excise tax. But, the Eleventh Circuit refused to compare the total taxation of railroads and trucks to avoid the “Sisyphean burden of evaluating the fairness of the State’s overall tax structure.” Instead it concluded Alabama’s sales tax on railroads violates 4-R because Alabama’s competitors don’t pay it.

The SLLC brief argues that given state’s traditional power to tax the Court should interpret 4-R narrowly. The brief suggests the Court could take three approaches to rule in favor of Alabama. First, it could compare the tax treatment of rail carriers to all commercial and industrial taxpayers in the state (who all pay sales tax) instead of only railroad competitors. Second, the Court could ignore the labels of sales and excise tax and compare the amount railroads and their competitors pay in total taxes. Third, the Court could note the relevant differences between railroads and their competitors. For example, water carriers traditionally have been exempt from all taxes on diesel fuel because of constitutional concerns about taxing vessels in navigable waters.

Finally the SLLC brief points out that “[r]uling in favor of CSX would threaten States’ ability to take in tax revenue, an ability already impeded by current economic conditions. This Court must not allow 4-R to shield CSX—a $12 billion nationwide corporation—and other rail carriers from paying millions of dollars in taxes that fund vital public services. Congress did not intend for 4-R to enrich large corporations by impoverishing the States.”

All of the Big Seven, including NLC, joined the SLLC brief along with SLLC associate members the International Municipal Lawyers Association and the Government Finance Officers Association. Sarah Shalf of the Emory Law School Supreme Court Advocacy Project wrote the SLLC brief.

A Mayor’s Pledge to Support Successful Aging

This is a guest post written by Paul H. Irving, President, Milken Institute.

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This month, the Milken Institute’s Best Cities for Successful Aging Advisory Committee will ask mayors across the nation to sign a pledge that promises to improve life for older adults and residents of all ages.

Cities are at the front lines in addressing the consequences of the rapid, unprecedented aging of populations in the United States and across the world. Enabling successful aging is a central issue for urban communities and municipal leaders. The Best Cities for Successful Aging Pledge unites mayors around a commitment to enhance life for the world’s largest-ever population of older adults and ensure a better future for our cities.

The Pledge acknowledges both great challenges and great opportunities for city leaders. In conjunction with the second edition of its often-cited report, “Best Cities for Successful Aging,” to be released later this year, the Milken Institute will recognize forward-thinking mayors who sign the Pledge and celebrate their efforts to promote purpose and well-being for their aging residents. The “Best Cities” report, which compares the nation’s metropolitan areas on data-driven criteria, receives wide attention in major national and local newspaper, television, radio and social media outlets.

As we initiate the Pledge, the stakes are clear. By 2030 one in five Americans will be over 65, most of them living in urban environments. Worldwide, this older age group by mid-century will outnumber children under 14, due in large measure to declining birthrates and expanding longevity resulting from medical, technical and public health advances.

In the United States, older adults increasingly concentrate in America’s urban settings, where we see the emergence of Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities, or NORCs. These surroundings profoundly influence older residents’ ability to age well and enjoy healthy, engaged and fulfilling lives.

To improve lives through strengthened cities requires urban environments that are physically, economically and socially attuned to the well-being of mature residents. An age-friendly city optimizes health and security as well as engagement and productivity. It offers housing options and social services as well as opportunities for education, work, volunteerism and social interaction. These goals hold vast opportunity for our cities—and require new thinking as well as strong, committed mayoral leadership.

Too often we overlook older adults’ potential to improve society for people of all ages. We see only stereotypes of decline and disengagement. Mayors and other municipal leaders must promulgate the truth: Older residents can be an invaluable asset to their communities. We encourage government leaders to discard outmoded notions of aging that fail to consider this potential.

Older people today are healthier and more vibrant than in generations past. They have much to offer—not just the wisdom of age, but the practical experience and skills that can enrich families as well as work, educational and social settings. They offer a wealth of mentoring and training opportunities in the workforce, along with perspectives that enhance intergenerational teams. In encore careers and entrepreneurial ventures, they help drive economic growth. In education and volunteer activities, they contribute to society’s well-being.

Today’s mayors have a chance to help their communities reimagine what it means to grow older. With eyes open to 21st century reality, innovative officials can create environments that embrace the contributions of aging populations.

Through cross-agency efforts, cities will feature welcoming neighborhoods where age-friendly streets and shops encourage older people’s social engagement. Through upgraded infrastructure and communications, cities will enable people to age independently in their homes. By integrating health and social services into overall planning, cities will foster healthy aging. And through transportation and housing options, cities will promote mobility, safety and convenience, in the bargain enabling older adults to remain involved in their communities.

The role of mayors in this great urban challenge cannot be overstated. Leadership is paramount in championing a new model of aging that incorporates the many assets older people bring. Mayors’ ground-level experience with demographic transitions opens the door to solutions that can be replicated at the state, national and global levels.

Cities are economic engines and centers of purpose. Urban leaders can ensure that older residents contribute to the economy and strengthen civil society, applying their abilities and knowledge to keeping cities strong and vibrant. Our mayors can harness the benefits of longevity and embrace the upside of aging.

It’s time to make successful aging a priority in our cities. We look forward to celebrating the commitment and vision of mayors who sign the Best Cities for Successful Aging Pledge.

Paul-IrvingAbout the author: Paul H. Irving is president and a member of the board of the Milken Institute. Irving’s work to improve aging societies has been featured in outlets such as PBS Newshour, Forbes, CBS, NBC, CNN, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. He is the recipient of the 2014 Janet L. Witkin Award from Affordable Living for the Aging. Irving’s book, “The Upside of Aging – How Long Life is Changing the World of Health, Work, Innovation, Policy, and Purpose,” was recently published by John Wiley & Sons.

Supreme Court Preview for Cities

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Even though the Supreme Court’s next term won’t officially begin until October 6, the Court has already accepted about 40 of the 70 or so cases it will decide in the upcoming months.

For a more detailed summary of all the cases the Court has accepted so far affecting cities, read the State and Local Legal Center’s Supreme Court Preview for Local Governments.

Here is a quick highlight of what is on the Court’s docket right now that will affect local government:

Reed v. Town of Gilbert, Arizona and T-Mobile South v. City of Roswell will likely have the most impact on the day-to-day operations of local government. Reed deals with the constitutionality of the Town of Gilbert’s sign code while the Court in T-Mobile will determine what is required under the Telecommunications Act to deny a cell phone tower siting permit “in writing.”

To date the Court has only agreed to hear only one Fourth Amendment case. Heien v. North Carolina involves whether a traffic stop is permissible under the Fourth Amendment when it is based on an officer’s misunderstanding of the law.

Of interest to cities that operate jails, the issue in Holt v. Hobbs is whether a state prison grooming policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act because it prohibits an inmate from growing a half-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.

The Court has accepted three tax cases affecting local government this term. Comptroller v. Wynne involves the constitutionality of a state failing to offer residents a tax credit for all income taxes paid to another jurisdiction. Alabama Department of Revenue v. CSX Transportation involves whether a diesel fuel sales tax is discriminatory against railroads in violation of the Railroad Revitalization and Regulation Reform Act (4-R). And in Direct Marketing Association v. Brohl the Court will decide whether a challenge to the constitutionality of Colorado’s attempt to collect more tax revenue from online purchases can be heard in federal court.

No Supreme Court term would be complete without one Fair Labor Standard Act (FLSA) case. Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk ask the straightforward question of whether the time employees spend in security screenings is compensable under the FLSA.

While the question presented in Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association sounds academic, this case will have a practical impact on local government. The issue is whether a federal agency must engage in notice-and-comment rulemaking pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act before it can significantly alter an interpretive rule that interprets an agency regulation.

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About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

Supporting Small Businesses through Economic Development Offices

This is a guest post written by Jason Rittenberg.

Bakery Square in Pittsburgh is a mixed-use redevelopment project of CDFA member Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Bakery Square in Pittsburgh is a mixed-use redevelopment project of CDFA member Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Incubators. Microlending. Accelerators. Crowdfunding. From rural areas to large cities, from the middle of the country to the coasts, today’s economic development entities — and their jargon — are all-in on encouraging small business finance.

Communities are increasing their support with good reason. Small businesses account for more than 99 percent of firms, 49 percent of employment and 42 percent of payroll in the country.[1] Further, small business lending continues to struggle out of the recession. While overall business lending is up nearly 25 percent from 2008, bank loans of less than $1 million remain down 14 percent over the same period.[2]

So communities are focused on helping small businesses, and from a constituent and need perspective, it makes sense for them to do so. But what does it mean to “help” a small business? For that matter, what is a “small” business? The answers to these questions are actually complex.

The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) defines a small business as having fewer than 500 employees, covering 99.7 percent of all firms. However, 90 percent of firms have fewer than 20 employees, and 62 percent have fewer than five. The difference in sophistication, goals and needs of a business with no employees is vastly different from a business with 10 employees, which is again exponentially different from a firm with 200 employees. Infusionsoft put together an infographic in 2012 to help illustrate these differences.

Given this variation, communities looking to support small businesses of any stripe need to think strategically about their economic development goals and needs before proceeding. Development finance programs require non-trivial commitments of resources to be effective and should therefore be entered into only as part of a comprehensive regional strategy. At the organization I work for, the Council of Development Finance Agencies (CDFA), we refer to this approach as the “development finance toolbox.”[3]

In the area of small business access to capital, CDFA has seen a wide variety of city and state programs be successful. Technical assistance, seed and venture capital, credit enhancement, and lending programs — as well as incubators, microlending and other trendy solutions — can all contribute to small businesses in different ways. The keys to success are to match the right program to real community needs and to find the right partners to assist in implementation.

Small business needs, foundational finance programs, and innovative support programs are all being covered as part of the Providing Small Businesses with Access to Capital forum being held in Kansas City, MO on October 8-9, 2014. Economic development, small business development, and other city staff are encouraged to participate in the event to learn about the latest and best practices for encouraging this critical sector of the local economy.

Rittenberg_HeadShot_blogAbout the author: Jason Rittenberg is the Director of Research & Advisory Services for CDFA. He oversees numerous projects, including the State Small Business Credit Initiative Coalition, and is the course advisor the CDFA Intro Revolving Loan Fund Course.

 

 

 

[1] U.S. Census Bureau. (2012). Latest Statistics of U.S. Businesses Annual Data. Retrieved 8/19/2014 from: http://www.census.gov/econ/susb/

[2] Simon, P. and Loten, A. (2014, Aug. 17). Small-business lending is slow to recover. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 8/19/2014 from: http://online.wsj.com/articles/small-business-lending-is-slow-to-recover-1408329562

[3] Rittner, T. (2009). Practitioner’s Guide to Economic Development Finance.

Speaking Up: Tips for Young People to Advocate Effectively

This post was written by NLC summer interns, Priscille Biehlmann, Molly Coleman and Olivia Myszkowski.

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As National League of Cities summer interns, we recently had the chance to try our hand at federal advocacy on Capitol Hill. All Minnesota natives, we met with members of the Minnesota delegation to discuss NLC’s positions on immigration and education policy.

For young people invested in public service and political decision making, direct conversations with congressional staff and representatives can serve as a powerful learning experience. In sitting down with congressional staff, we were able to speak both as involved constituents and as representatives of the National League of Cities.

We were charged with emphasizing NLC’s commitment to strong federal-local partnerships in support of community school systems, along with the League’s support for comprehensive immigration reform. We also had the chance to spend time talking about our personal investment in these issues as Minnesota voters, and to hear feedback from staff about our representatives’ positions.

As we spoke with representatives and their staff, the importance of youth involvement in federal advocacy was reinforced time and time again. Minnesota 5th District Representative Keith Ellison was adamant that input from young constituents influences his votes in a meaningful way, emphasizing that one personal story from a young person often cuts to the core of an issue and resonates more deeply than numbers, charts and data can.

Speaking directly with elected officials at the federal level might seem daunting, but with the right approach, effective federal advocacy is possible even for the youngest of civic-minded citizens. If there is an issue that you’re passionate about, the following tips can help you productively communicate your thoughts with your representative:

  1. Be Punctual and Flexible. Be sure to arrive to the meeting 10 minutes in advance, but be prepared for last minute changes in scheduling. Members of Congress and their staff have hectic schedules, so it’s not uncommon for a meeting to be interrupted, delayed or canceled. On the other hand, the unpredictability of a congressperson’s schedule can sometimes be an advantage. Though our meeting with Rep. Ellison’s office was initially scheduled to be with one of his legislative aids, the Congressman had some space in between meetings to sit down with us for an impromptu discussion.
  2. Be Upfront and Personal. Be clear on what you are requesting and ask directly for his or her support. Reference the legislation you are addressing, including the bill number and title, if it is available. Describe why the issue is important to your community using specific and personal example
  3. Be Brief. Plan to have only about five minutes of speaking time to get your message across clearly and effectively. Because of the risk of interruption from votes, schedules running late or last-minute emergencies, that may be all the time you’ll have.
  4. Conclude Clearly and Follow Up. If any commitments are made, summarize them at the end of the meeting to ensure that everyone understands what has been decided. After you return home, e-mail the Congressional staff you met with to thank them for their time, briefly reiterate your position on the issue you discussed, and provide any further information the staff member may need.

As cities strive to have their voices heard on the legislative issues in front of Congress, harnessing the youth voice can be an effective way to stand out in the crowd. By incorporating young people into an advocacy strategy, cities can often make a more powerful, and therefore more memorable, statement.

Additionally, it is clear that young people have a unique perspective on many of the issues most directly related to city governance. Given the number of city services specifically targeting Millennials, from schools to workforce training programs to juvenile justice reform efforts, it is critical for local elected officials to not only reach out to this population, but to find ways to keep them actively engaged. NLC has many great resources to help you boost youth civic engagement in your city.

Members of Congress are there to serve their constituents, but these constituents often have to be willing to take the first step. By encouraging citizens, especially young people, to become actively involved at the local level, they are more likely to exercise the power of their voice at all levels of government. When city leaders take the time to energize and engage the youngest members of their communities, they are equipping an entire generation to be civic-minded and politically astute.

Overtaxed? NLC Involved in State Income Tax Supreme Court Case

Every Supreme Court tax case comes down to an argument perhaps most familiar to small children: “it isn’t fair.” The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC)/International Municipal Lawyers Association (IMLA) amicus brief in Comptroller v. Wynne, which NLC joined, argues that the tax policy choice the Maryland legislature made is fair (or at least fair enough) and that state and local governments should be able to devise tax schemes without judicial interference.

In Comptroller v. Wynne the Supreme Court will determine whether the U.S. Constitution requires states to give a credit for taxes paid on income earned out-of-state.

Forty-three states and nearly 5,000 local governments tax residents’ income. Many of these jurisdictions do not provide a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for income taxes paid to other states on income earned out-of-state. A decision against Maryland’s Comptroller in this case will limit state and local government taxing authority nationwide.

The Wynnes of Howard County, Maryland, received S-corporation income that was generated and taxed in numerous states. Maryland’s Tax Code includes a county tax. While Maryland law allowed the Wynnes to receive a tax credit against their Maryland state taxes for income taxes paid to other states, it did not allow them to claim a credit against their Maryland county taxes.

Maryland’s highest state court held that Maryland’s failure to grant a credit against Maryland’s county tax violated the U.S. Constitution’s dormant Commerce Clause, which denies states the power to unjustifiably discriminate against or burden interstate commerce. Among other things, the Maryland Court of Appeals noted that if every state imposed a county tax without a credit, interstate commerce would be disadvantaged. Taxpayers who earn income out of state would be “systematically taxed at higher rates relative to taxpayers who earn income entirely within their home state.”

The SLLC/IMLA amicus brief challenges the Maryland Court of Appeals decision on several grounds. First, the power of state and local governments to tax the income of its residents, wherever earned, has been upheld repeatedly at the Supreme Court. Second, the scope of the “dormant Commerce Clause” regarding individual non-resident income taxes has not been clearly defined by the Court and should not now construed to mandate credits. Third, taxation is a legislative matter that should not usurped by the judiciary.

And finally, state and local governments must make complex policy choices and tradeoffs when devising a taxing system. If Maryland was required to provide a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, a neighbor with substantial out-of-state income would contribute significantly less to pay for local services than a neighbor earning the same income in-state, even though both take equal advantage of local services. And to counterbalance a dollar-for-dollar tax credit, a county would need to raise some other tax, which will fall disproportionately on some other neighbor and often be more regressive. Maryland’s choice to avoid these results “does not cross any constitutional line.”

Paul Clement and Zack Tripp of Bancroft wrote the brief. The National Conference of State Legislatures, National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties, International City/County Management Association, and the Government Finance Officers Association joined the brief.

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About the author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

National Parks as Urban Economic Engines

Gettysburg National Military Park. © Dwight Nadig/ISTOCKPHOTO

Gettysburg National Military Park. © Dwight Nadig/ISTOCKPHOTO

Most Americans do not associate our beloved national parks with cities. In fact, urban areas are home to some of our greatest national assets. Parks such as Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco, and the Statue of Liberty in New York City provide essential connections to our collective history, homes to some of our rarest plants and animal species and places where every American can go to find inspiration, fresh air, peace and open space.

Additionally, with 85% of Americans residing in urban areas by the year 2030, it is important that we value and support national parks in urban areas accurately. Of the 401 national parks in all 50 states, the majority of them are located in urban areas.  In the not-too-distant future, urban national parks may provide a majority of Americans with their first and only national park experience.

At present the role of urban parks in the national park system is largely undervalued. National parks provide hours of affordable enjoyment, historical education, and interesting destinations for international visitors who stay longer and spend more freely during their visits. This is especially important as cities work through economic downturns and trade deficits.

According to Forbes, National Parks are visited by nearly 300 million people annually, ranking them eighth among America’s top 25 domestic travel destinations. Near Philadelphia, for example, Gettysburg National Military Park is an important economic generator for the entire region. Over the past two years, it has welcomed more than one million visitors who have spent more than $72 million at local businesses. Park officials expect up to four times as many visitors during the battle’s 150th anniversary this year.

National Parks are the touchstones of our nation’s shared history and culture, span geographic region, ethnic background, age, economic circumstance, and political persuasion, and serve as anchors to greater urban park systems. And beyond that, National Parks are economic engines critical to supporting residential, commercial, and community development; for every dollar invested in National Park operations, $10 is generated for local economies.  And for every two Parks Service jobs, another one job is created outside the park.

National Parks contribute to the physical and aesthetic quality of urban neighborhoods and are valuable contributors to job opportunities, youth development, public health, and community building. National Parks provide affordable, safe, and inspiring places for people to play, exercise, and relax.

However, for all of these benefits, the National Park Service budget has been cut by nearly 8% or $180 million in today’s dollars compared to four years ago, and parks could see ongoing cuts for the foreseeable future. The National Park Service is suffering an annual operations shortfall of approximately $500 million. There are not enough rangers and other staff to care for our national treasures and serve visitors. Parks are falling into disrepair and becoming more vulnerable than ever to inappropriate development within their boundaries. Another cut would mean even fewer rangers, dramatic maintenance reductions, and almost certainly park and site closures.

Further, national parks are truly one of the last non-partisan issues left. They are popular across the full political spectrum: 92 percent of voters think that federal spending on National Parks should be increased or be kept the same.

Support for preserving the economic stability of our communities by protecting National Park budgets from further cuts is one of the wisest decisions a municipal leader can make.

Karen Nozik's Head Shot blogAbout the author: Karen Nozik has served as the Director of Ally Development and Partnerships at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) in Washington, DC since 2011.  In previous experience, she was Communications Director for Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) in Boulder, Colorado, and Director of Outreach for Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a national nonprofit organization in Washington, DC, working with communities to preserve and transform unused rail corridors into trails.