In Call with Mayors, Obama Urges Measured Response to Ebola

The tragic death of Thomas Duncan in a Dallas hospital reminds us of the severity of the disease, said President Obama, and that it must be taken seriously.

Obama-EbolaGetty Images

In a wide ranging conference call with city leaders from across the nation, President Barack Obama on Wednesday spoke about the need for an appropriate and measured response to the Ebola virus and the crisis that is now concerning many in the U.S.

The tragic death of Liberian Thomas Duncan in a Dallas hospital reminds us of the severity of the disease and how we must take it seriously, Obama noted. But we need to respond based on facts and the facts are that doctors in the U.S. know how to deal with infectious diseases, in general, and the Ebola virus, in particular, he added.

Obama reiterated over and over an outbreak in the United States will be prevented, and then announced additional security and screening measures will be taken at five U.S. airports where about 90 percent of all West Africans enter the United States.

President Obama was joined on the call by Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Tom Frieden M.D. Burwell opened her remarks by noting that the U.S. is prepared to deal with the Ebola virus and any outbreak that might occur; that the CDC has been in constant contact through publications and webinars with state and local health officials since the outbreak began nearly a year ago, and is also consulting with airlines, airports, hospitals, private physicians and other health care providers and their representatives.

Dr. Frieden echoed Burwel, saying–as he has said repeatedly–that the U.S. government is confident the virus can be contained in this country, even if other cases are identified; that the CDC is providing information to health care workers on methods for treating Ebola virus patients – something that is very complex — and how health care workers should protect themselves from possible exposure; and has set up a hotline number (800 CDC INFO) for health care workers and others to obtain information on the Ebola virus, its containment, and treatment.

Homeland Security Secretary Johnson addressed the increasing concern about travelers from West Africa. Echoing President Obama’s statement that this is a national security issue, Johnson spoke about how DHS will be increasing inspections of travelers arriving from West Africa. In addition to screenings at departure points in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, customs and immigration agents in the United States will be doing visual inspections for signs of illness, medically trained Coast Guard personnel will be taking temperatures of persons arriving from these countries (with thermometers that operate without direct contact), and when necessary referrals to CDC personnel based at the airports will be made.

The stepped up screenings will take place at five airports – JFK, Newark, Dulles, O’Hare, and Atlanta Hartsfield – and when appropriate, at other entry points, including ports.

Among the mayors who joined the conversation were Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Each praised the federal government for the work it was doing to help their local health departments prepare for, and in the case of Dallas, deal with the disease, and talked about what they have been learning either as they responded to the disease or prepared to respond.

Mayor Rawlings noted that the real difficulties occur on the ground where so many different organizations and operations have to be merged into a single effort to respond to the disease and wondered if there is a way to standardize this. Mayor Nutter requested assistance from the federal government in developing strategies to best communicate with their federal partners. Mayor Landrieu urged every mayor to perform a table top review so that the response methodology and system to the Ebola virus can be tested and strengths and weaknesses can be identified.

In response to their questions and statement, Dr. Frieden and Secretary Burwell underscored the following facts:

  • Ebola cannot be caught from someone who is asymptomatic;
  • Ebola can only be caught from someone who is actually showing symptoms of the disease and then only through direct contact with the sick person or their bodily fluids; and
  • Ebola is not transmitted through the air like Influenza and other more common viruses.

As to communication and response, they said it is imperative that:

  • Mayors and other local officials should stay in touch with their local health departments to discuss any emerging or present threats;
  • Communicate clearly with the public;
  • Underscore that while Ebola is a terrible and frightening disease, keep to the facts; and
  • Every city, county and state should have an identified incident manager who is responsible for bringing all of the actors together to ensure a seamless response.

Ultimately, Sec. Burwell reminded everyone on the call to contact their local and state public health officials as well as the CDC if they have any concerns or questions.

Note: If you have any specific questions that can’t be answered by the CDC website or by your local or state health department, please feel free to email me at bomberg@nlc.org and I will pass your question on to officials at the White House or Health and Human Services Department for an answer.

Neil BombergAbout the author: Neil Bomberg is NLC’s Program Director for Human Development. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around education, workforce development, health care, welfare, and pensions. Follow Neil on Twitter at @neilbomberg.

Cities Make Sustainability the New Business-as-Usual

Mayors from cities large and small increasingly recognize that the business of local government cannot be separated from environmental issues.

SLC-SustainabilityRalph Becker, Mayor, Salt Lake City (pictured), dedicated over 80% of his State of the City address to environmental issues.

In June 2013, President Obama released the first federal Climate Action Plan to reduce carbon emissions and better protect the country from the anticipated effects of climate change. This came nearly ten years after the city of Keene, N.H. — population 23,000 — completed a lengthy community engagement process and launched its own climate action plan.

It has recently become something of a mantra, even within Washington, D.C., to acknowledge that most of the innovative policies, programs and ideas related to environmental protection are being generated at the local level. Federal agencies have done commendable work through the multi-agency Partnership for Livable Communities, increased CAFÉ standards for fuel economy, among other initiatives – however, many of the innovative policies and financial tools that incentivize green building, improve recycling and waste diversion, promote renewable energy or expand alternative transportation have been championed by local governments.

Blog 10- 6-14 COOPER-06But is this narrative actually true? And if so, how wide reaching is this local leadership? Based on NLC’s ongoing analysis of Mayoral State of the City addresses, we’ve identified tangible actions taken by local leadership on environmental issues in cities of nearly every size, in every region of the country.

Within our sample, we discovered that 63% of speeches covered environmental topics such as renewable energy, water, climate, or sustainability, while 20% devoted “significant coverage”—at least three paragraphs or more—to environmental topics.

Digging into these speeches more closely, a handful of mayors, approximately 12%, are at the forefront of these issues and have made environmental protection a central part of their agenda. Their speeches include specific references to sustainability plans, climate action plans or other comprehensive and holistic plans that guide municipal activities.

Most importantly, these mayors seem to understand that the business of local government cannot be separated from environmental issues. Mayor Greg Stanton of Phoenix, Ariz. is representative of many other speeches in this regard, explaining to his citizens that:

“No matter how well we have planned in Phoenix to avoid a water shortage, our economy will suffer when reliable water supplies for the region are threatened… We are engaging with leaders in California and southern Nevada to find common ground on shortage scenarios. We should examine our own laws so that as we continue to grow and develop, we do so in a truly sustainable way. We cannot afford to wait.”

The city is not only acting on its own behalf, it is bringing others in the region along.

Water is not the only environmental issue that can have a dramatic impact on a local economy. Mayor Ralph Becker of Salt Lake City, Utah – who dedicated over 80% of his State of the City address to environmental issues – bluntly related the news that according to the director of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, “the number one reason businesses choose not to come to Utah is because of our bad air quality.”

Leading By Example

Twenty percent of cities demonstrating clear leadership on environmental issues may not appear that significant, but it is important to keep in mind how quickly best practices can spread once a concept is proven. Although local government is a risk-averse business, it is clear from this analysis that many cities are benefiting from the experience of a few innovators.

One example of this is Columbia, S.C., where Mayor Stephen Benjamin announced that the city would be working with private sector partners to build a facility to divert tons of sewer sludge from their waste stream to be recycled and produce high quality fertilizer, compressed natural gas for city vehicles and enough electricity to power 500 homes.

The initiative is described as the “single most impactful green initiative the city has ever taken” and it would likely not be possible without other cities who demonstrated that such technology could be environmentally and economically viable.

Looking to the future, one of the most promising new developments is that two cities in our analysis, Evanston, Ill. and Seattle, Wash., discussed their commitment to pursue the STAR Community Rating. Developed with significant input and cooperation from local government officials, the STAR system rates participating cities on a variety of environmental and social metrics, providing a comprehensive and data-driven benchmark for cities to identify their strengths or areas in which they may need improvement.

This type of consistent, objective, and independently verified rating has the potential to dramatically improve environmental performance.

It will take much more local leadership if we are going to create truly sustainable communities, but this research is indicative of the thousands of communities throughout the country who are at the forefront. It is up to us to measure, replicate, and improve on the examples they have set.

This is the fourth blog post in NLC’s State of the Cities 2014 series.

Headshot1-CMartinAbout the author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for Sustainability at the National League of Cities.

Muni Broadband 101: What You Need to Know

Municipal broadband networks meet the specific internet needs of a community — as the citizens and individuals there know and define them.

wifiA free Wi-Fi hotspot beams broadband Internet from atop a public phone booth. The City of New York launched a pilot program to provide free public Wi-Fi at public phone booths around the five boroughs. Photo credit: Getty Images.

What is the difference between broadband service provided to residents of Danville, Vir., Chattanooga, Tenn., San Leandro, Calif. and service in other similar communities across the country?

Speed. Price. Coverage.

Why is this the case? It’s simple: the role of municipal government.

Starting today and through the end of 2014, CitiesSpeak will feature a series of blogs on the ins and outs of municipal broadband, the national policy debate and developments related to this issue, and the innovative ways in which cities, big and small, are handling this rapidly unfolding new universe.

While this is not the first time NLC has addressed broadband issues or adoption, this series is committed to clearing some of the ambiguity surrounding these topics.

Telecom policy is complicated, and certainly difficult to keep up with these days. The discussion seems to be populated by a number of buzz-words as well. We hear more and more about who has easy access and first service (“deployment” and “adoption”), who owns the service (“municipal broadband” vs. “ISPs”) who reaps the most benefits (“literacy” and “monopoly”) who is being left behind (“digital divide”).

This is all comparable to peeling an onion the more you pull the layers back, the more nuanced and complex the solutions seem to become. The fact is the telecom policy universe is vast, and sometimes it’s challenging to reconcile the ways in which everything fits together, and frankly, why city leaders should care.

Municipal broadband and the role of the city in providing this service has changed significantly over the last few years. At this point in the broadband deployment game, most households in America have the option to purchase broadband service from one or two large cable providers. The limited competition in the market and recent mergers among providers are raising monopoly concerns for net neutrality and consumer rights advocates alike.

So what does this mean for cities? And what’s their role in solving this complicated policy problem?

Municipalities are meeting this challenge by building out their own networks in states that allow it. For many cities this is a game-changer that represents not only equity in access but also economic competitiveness.

Municipal networks offer high-speed internet service to citizens at affordable prices (sometimes for free), force competition into local ISP markets, encourage economic development and new business, and help local governments and municipal services to function more efficiently. Most importantly, they meet the specific internet needs of a community, as the citizens and individuals there know and define them.

The City of Danville (population 42,996) once had the highest unemployment rate in the state of Virginia. The city’s low-skilled population made it difficult to attract the types of industry that would sustain development in the region. While general communications access (telephone, cable TV, and Internet) was adequate for the home consumer, it was not optimized for businesses. Building a network that would help expand business opportunities as well as wire public anchor institutions was one of the key features of Danville’s approach to local economic development.

The resulting open access, multiservice fiber network – nDanville – allows the city to provide direct service to schools and other city buildings as well as residential and business service. The network has been able to attract new businesses to the city and Danville has now gone from having the highest unemployment in Virginia to boasting a world-class technology infrastructure, revitalized downtown, new jobs, and a skilled workforce.

Blog entries over the next couple of weeks will further explore the ways municipal networks are taking shape across the country, all of the different players and perspectives involved in the internet democracy discussion, intersections with net neutrality, the onslaught of anti-muni laws, the interplay between cities and Google Fiber, and the innovative public private partnerships developing around muni networks. Revisit CitiesSpeak in the coming weeks to follow this series.

ND headshotAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.

Supreme Court Long Conference Results Are In!

During the Supreme Court “long conference,” the Court granted a total of 11 petitions; at least four of those cases are relevant to local government.

Supreme-Court-Building

Last Monday’s Supreme Court “long conference” did not disappoint. The Supreme Court granted a total of 11 petitions. At least four of those cases are relevant to local government.

Housing discrimination

For the third time the Court has accepted a case involving this issue of whether disparate-impact (as opposed to disparate treatment) claims can be brought under the Fair Housing Act (FHA). It remains to be seen if Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project will settle like its predecessors, Mt. Holly v. Mt. Holly Citizens in Action and Magner v. Gallagher. The 11 federal circuits that have decided this issue have all held that disparate-impact claims are actionable. The Supreme Court is expected to rule to the contrary. Local government have been sued for disparate impact under the FHA and have sued other entities.

Fourth Amendment search

In its second Fourth Amendment case of the term, Rodriguez v. United States, the Court will decide whether a police officer violates the Fourth Amendment by extending (for just a few minutes) an already-completed traffic stop for a dog sniff. The Eighth Circuit held the search in this case was reasonable. The police officer waited seven or eight minutes after the traffic stop was completed before deploying his sniffer dog because he wanted backup given that there were two people in the stopped car.

Employment discrimination

The issue in EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores is whether an employer can violate Title VII for failing to hire someone because of a “religious observance and practice” that the employer knows about—but wasn’t told about directly by the applicant. The applicant in this case wore a hajib to her interview with Abercrombie & Fitch. When Abercrombie didn’t hire her because her hajib violated their “no caps” policy she sued. The Tenth Circuit ruled in favor of Abercrombie because the applicant did not inform Abercrombie she needed a religious accommodation (though it was obvious).

Confrontation Clause

In Ohio v. Clark the Supreme Court will decide whether testimony of head start teachers about what a three year old boy told them when they asked him who hurt him was admissible in his father’s assault trial. The Ohio Supreme Court held that admitting their testimony, when the boy did not testify due to his young age, violated the Confrontation Clause because the boy’s statements were “testimonial.” The court reasoned that the teachers were acting as law enforcement agents when they questioned him because they have mandatory child abuse reporting obligations and the boy was not in the midst of an ongoing emergency when he was questioned.

For more information about these cases and other Supreme Court case relevant to states and local government previously accepted please attend the SLLC’s FREE Supreme Court Preview webinar on October 16.

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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.

Reno Tackles Reengagement

Reno, Nev., joins the growing number of cities across the country that are using reengagement centers to address the needs of young people who have left high school.

Washoe County Reengagement Center Photo credit: Washoe County School District

“Two staff members of the Reengagement Center provided my only support. Otherwise I was alone. Because of them, I’m graduating in June 2015 with my class.” These sad yet inspiring words came from Tara Ebbs, a beneficiary of one of the Washoe County, Nevada Reengagement Centers in Reno who is now enrolled at Washoe Innovations High School.

Blog EMILY 10-3-14-03Tara and her classmate Jose Funes – who says he wants to graduate to set an example for his younger brothers – offered soul-stirring talks at a recent meeting among some 20 Reno-area community partners. With the students’ words ringing in their ears, the partners helped Reengagement Center staff develop a sustainability strategy for the initiative launched four years ago under a federal High School Graduation Initiative (HSGI) grant.

Washoe County is among the growing number of sites in the NLC Reengagement Network working to address the particular needs of young people who leave school. Last year’s graduating cohort saw 608 students leave anytime during high school, and the district recorded more than 700 students leaving during the 2013-14 academic year. With these numbers in mind, Washoe County is embarking on efforts to offer re-tooled and better alternative high school settings, including a Big Picture Learning-model school and schools-within-schools at each of the local campuses.

In their first three full years of operation, with four to six operating sites and a staff of as many as seven, the Washoe Reengagement Centers have reconnected about one-third of the pool of students in the sprawling county who left school recently.

An impressive 74 percent of the students re-enrolled through the Centers have “stuck it out” in school for at least the balance of the school year, placing Washoe County on par with the national “stick rate” for reengagement centers. Largely returning to alternative settings, about 20 percent of the re-enrolled students immediately began earning credits at a rate similar to that of traditional high schools students.

In a possibly unique staffing configuration and operating focus for reengagement, three Reengagement Specialists hold primary responsibility for outreach to former students identified as having left school. Three Family Advocates in turn provide case management services to re-enrolling students and their families, in an effort to remove a wide range of barriers students may face and ensure stronger parental/guardian involvement.

Strategic options that Reno reengagement partners will explore – as in other cities such as Los Angeles and Chicago – include a higher-profile role for city government and other county government agencies, stepped-up or more formalized partnerships with nonprofit service providers with expertise serving the older teen population, and a substantially changed and rebalanced mix of funding sources. The community will also focus on how to keep one or more reengagement hubs going.

Look forward to hearing more from Washoe County as it plots its sustainability strategy – and from more success stories such as Tara and Jose.

Andrew MooreAbout the Author: Andrew Moore is a Senior Fellow in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education & Families. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewOMoore.

Impact-Volunteering Improves Literacy, Youth Success and Safety

This is a guest blog post by Marcia Hope Goodwin, and the second post in a multi-part series from NLC, the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and Cities of Service on the national and community service movement and its impact on cities and towns nationwide.

Orlando-ChildrenOrlando Mayor Buddy Dyer reads to children.

“I believe our plan is a progressive, resourceful and collaborative approach to impact-volunteering, helping address our pressing city needs through citizen service, while expanding volunteer opportunities in Orlando and increasing the spirit of volunteerism across our Central Florida region.” -Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer

In 2010, the City of Orlando was awarded a Cities of Service Leadership Grant, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies, which enabled Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and the city’s first Chief Service Officer, Marcia Hope Goodwin, to coordinate a collaborative community engagement process to develop the city’s first high-impact service plan: Mayor Buddy Dyer’s Cities of Service: ORLANDO CARES.

Through stakeholder meetings and nonprofit partner feedback, Mayor Dyer and Ms. Hope Goodwin identified youth literacy, improved education, youth crime reduction, and community safety as the major challenges facing the city that could be addressed by engaging community members in impact-volunteering initiatives. More than 800 stakeholders and partners from all sectors of the community helped to create ORLANDO CARES and its initiatives. Since the plan’s launch in March 2011, Orlando has added programming based on Cities of Service Third Grade Reads  and Volunteer CPR blueprints to their initiative.

Orlando-GardenThe City of Orlando’s partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) has been an integral part of ORLANDO CARES’ success. CNCS has provided AmeriCorps VISTA members that have increased outcomes, built capacity and increased sustainability in all of our programs. To date, 25 National Service members, including AmeriCorps VISTAs and Public Allies, have served in ORLANDO CARES, giving their year of national service to our country through city government and our community partner organizations. Our current Cities of Service Coordinator, Hiba George, is an AmeriCorps VISTA alumnus who, completed a year of national service with ORLANDO CARES, and was subsequently hired by the city to coordinate the program.

The six ORLANDO CARES initiatives serve many age groups, ranging from preschool students to high-school students. These programs allow for a wide range of volunteer opportunities for citizens, businesses, corporations and organizations. Volunteers who have a green thumb may enjoy mentoring upper elementary students in The Garden, a program that provides a safe and constructive opportunity for youth to connect with nature. Professionals may choose to volunteer for PathFinders as career coaches for middle school students. If a volunteer prefers a one-on-one mentorship instead of a group dynamic, 3rd Grade Reads powered by Read2Succeed offers an opportunity to tutor 1st or 2nd graders in vocabulary and/or reading fluency during an academic/school year.

Providing a variety of opportunities for volunteers enables us to engage more members of the Orlando community in meaningful ways. The volunteers who have given their time and dedication to ORLANDO CARES have a fantastic time doing so, as they build their social networks and increase their skill set, while making a tremendous impact! Each year the city hosts volunteer appreciation receptions, giving the Mayor, Chief Service Officer and staff a chance to thank the valued volunteers.

Orlando-School

Since 2011, more than 6,310 youth have been served in all of the programs and over 2,200 volunteers have been engaged. Through the Mayor’s leadership, the ORLANDO CARES initiative has engaged over 35 community partners and has been offered in 29 schools and 13 community centers. Specific program details include:

  • Through the Preschool Ambassadors program, volunteers read aloud weekly to preschool students and engage families in early literacy activities. To date, more than 1,500 students and families have participated in reading more than 4,500 stories. 85% of participating families have enrolled their children in pre-kindergarten programs.
  • More than 1,800 youth have joined Mayor Buddy’s Book Club for middle school youth, committing to read one book every six weeks and complete book activities with encouragement from volunteers. 98% of participating students report that they have increased their leisure reading as a result of the program.
  • Youth participants in The Garden program have planted more than 550 container gardens. Participants also maintain outdoor garden plots, learn about healthy foods and explore careers in agriculture. 95% of the student participants report understanding the importance of fresh produce in their diets.
  • Volunteers that work in a variety of professional fields help middle school students in the PathFinders program to identify their interests, explore career options and create academic plans to support their goals. 100% of participating students have avoided school suspensions and have GPAs higher than 2.5.
  • 3rd Grade Reads powered by Read2Succeed volunteers tutor first and second graders to improve their vocabulary and reading fluency. The weekly activities make reading fun and improve students’ academic performance through practice, encouragement and praise. Last school year, 100% of participating students increased their reading fluency and significantly improved their vocabulary.
  • Take Heart Orlando (Volunteer CPR), our community-wide Hands-Only CPR/AED initiative led by our partner, the Orlando Fire Department, provides a 30-minute training to city residents, businesses and organizations. Volunteers take action and save lives by registering and getting this lifesaving training. Volunteers assist as CPR trainers and pledge to train at least five others in Hands-Only CPR. More than 3,900 volunteers have already been trained since 2013.

As the City of Orlando continues to grow, service-involved citizens have become a significant part of the landscape of the city. Our ORLANDO CARES volunteers are positively impacting the education and safety of Orlando’s youth, their families and our entire community.

Through ORLANDO CARES, we are engaging volunteers in programs that help youth improve their academic success, increase their literacy skills, plan viable career choices and avoid the juvenile justice system, while improving the overall safety of our city. In our plan, we have created volunteer opportunities that impact educational outcomes and contribute to the safety of our community.  – Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer

For more information about ORLANDO CARES, please read our Orlando Cares service plan or visit our website.

Marcia-Goodwin-BlogAbout the author: Marcia Hope Goodwin is the City of Orlando’s Chief Service Officer and Director of the Office of Community Affairs and Human Relations. In 2010, when Orlando was awarded a Cities of Service Leadership Grant by Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Rockefeller Foundation, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer appointed Marcia to lead Orlando’s Cities of Service, Impact-Volunteering Plan, development and implementation. ORLANDO CARES, has successfully increased youth literacy and improved community safety.

How Local Government Hiring Addresses Growing Wage Gap

Public sector employment has consequences for the quality of economic recovery since the majority of local government jobs are mid-wage.

Boston-Police-HiringGetty Images
It’s no secret that although national employment is on the upswing, the type of job growth we’re experiencing is troublesome. Low-wage jobs are growing more quickly than high-wage jobs, with mid-wage jobs trailing even further behind. In fact, while lower-wage industries constituted only 22 percent of recession losses, they are responsible for 44 percent of recovery growth.

As I first alluded to back in 2012, employment in the public sector has consequences for the quality of anticipated economic recovery since the majority of local government jobs are mid-wage. 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. This resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of mid-wage jobs in public safety, public works, parks and recreation, public health, social services, transportation, and administration, among other municipal services.

As budgets stabilize, though, local government hiring is picking up. In fact, cities are adding jobs at a faster clip than their counterparts in state and federal government, with the majority of recent gains in overall government employment at the local level. Healthier municipal budgets and a stronger workforce means not only more mid-wage city workers, but also better prospects for mid-wage employment in the private sector.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, increased government spending supports private sector jobs—either through contracting or due to increased demand for job-specific supplies (privately-produced automobiles to supply police officers, for example). Local government investment in transportation, water, sewers and communications infrastructure also promotes private sector growth by reducing costs and creating opportunities for additional private sector investments, such as those in workforce.

Getting Back to Business

Strengthening municipal operations through restoring services and the workforce is proving to be a priority for cities. Our research on mayors’ annual State of the City speeches found that 83 percent of speeches touched on Budget/Finance related issues and 35 percent devoted “significant coverage” to the topic. These speeches illustrate that mayors across the country recognize their employees as valuable assets and worthwhile investments for the positive development of their communities.

SOTC-Finance 9-26-14-08In San Jose, for example, Mayor Chuck Reed said,

“Times have been tough, but we have turned the corner and are slowly beginning to restore services. We are training new police recruits and hiring community service officers. We were able to keep 49 fire fighters who had been paid for with federal grants that expired. We opened four new neighborhood libraries that sat vacant for years. We turned streetlights back on.

We’ve also begun to restore pay to our police officers and other city employees. We know that we’ve lost a lot of good people because of the pay cuts – often to cities that are wealthier or haven’t yet felt the impact of their unfunded pension liabilities. It will take time to restore pay to the levels we want (and our employees deserve), but this is an important step in keeping a quality workforce.”

Mayor Steve Williams, Huntington, WV noted,

“Our employees, our single greatest resource, have not had a raise since 2008. In many years, it was an easy decision to say we could not afford a pay raise. This is not one of those years. The budget is tight, but we cannot afford to not provide our employees a pay raise. Therefore, I am recommending a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise for all bargaining unit employees and administrative personnel.”

The words of mayors Reed and Williams are indicative of others, and signal the value of our municipal workforce not only to quality services, but to addressing the critical issue of closing the middle-wage gap.

This post is the third blog in NLC’s State of the Cities project.

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

Cities Focus on Action, Not Politics, To Tackle Climate Change

For many communities across the country, climate change isn’t a partisan debate; it’s a threat to their way of life.

park1200Saint Paul, Minn.

The United Nations put climate change on the top of its agenda this week, inviting leaders from 125 countries to a special summit focused on spurring international action. President Obama in a speech Tuesday spoke with urgency, telling Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and leaders from U.N. member states that climate change “will define the contours of this century more than any other [issue].”

The voices of international leaders are the second prominent call to action this week – in a historic show of support, 400,000 marched for climate action on Sunday in New York City. Stretching at times more than 4 miles, demonstrators representing the scientific community, religious and civic organizations, among others carried banners while uniting their voices under a call for “action now.”

For climate researchers, fears that this all may be too little too late casts a shadow on what many see as progress on a long stalled agenda. Leading scientists with the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been reported as saying we are dangerously close to no longer being able to limit global warming below 3.6° F – a critical threshold.

coleman

Mayor Chris Coleman speaks at the convening.

But for leaders at the local level – the ones that deal with the all too real effects of a warming climate – inaction is simply not an option. City leaders including NLC President Chris Coleman, Mayor of Saint Paul, Minn., Deb Lewis, Mayor of Ashland, Wisc. and Marsha Rummel, Alder of Madison, Wisc. know that the stakes are simply too high.

For their communities, climate change threatens the ability to go ice fishing, to protect the grid from increasing ice storms, to safely play hockey on an outdoor rink or to protect their iconic ecology from invasive species like the Emerald Ash Borer.

The very landscape upon which their economy, and their culture, is built is being threatened. Across the U.S., average temperatures have already increased by 1.3° F to 1.9° F since 1895 – last decade being the nation’s and the world’s hottest on record. Heavy downpours continue to increase nationally, while heat waves and winter storms have become more frequent and intense.

In Mayor Coleman’s state, Minnesota, the region has experienced a 2.0° F increase in temperature between 1900 and 2012; winter temperatures and overnight lows have increased faster than annual averages; more ice accumulates during winter; and the frost-free season has become 9 days longer – just to name a few.

Cities Tackle Climate Change

Over the course of the Midwest Regional Convening on Climate Resilience that took place earlier this week in St. Paul, which was hosted by NLC in collaboration with the Institute for Sustainable Communities and sponsored by Wells Fargo, despite the obvious challenges, the tone was remarkably solution focused.

“This crisis is at a critical period,” said Mayor Coleman during his keynote speech. “We are on the front lines—our residents are the most affected by the increasing severe weather that impacts us on a local, regional and global scale.”

panelMayor Peter Lindstrom (center) of Falcon Heights, Minn. speaks on a panel about climate challenges in the Midwest.

Cities from Minnesota and Wisconsin in attendance were invited to the workshop to develop strategies, promote discussion and strengthen engagement on the regional level. Over 60 participants from 12 different cities, many with populations less than 50,000, learned from regional and national experts and held discussions with their peers on building more resilient communities.

“This convening was about getting beyond the doom-and-gloom climate scenarios and the politics of the national climate debate,” said Cooper Martin, Program Director of NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute. “Gatherings like this allow city officials to focus on real economic, social and environmental challenges that cities within this region are grappling with today.”

Need for Federal Action

Though the focus of the event was regional, cities understand climate change exists within a national and global context. NLC 1st Vice President Ralph Becker, Mayor, Salt Lake City, addressed the city teams, speaking to how local leaders are influencing policy.

Last November, President Obama announced the creation of the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience to advise the Administration on how the federal government can respond to the needs of communities nationwide dealing with the impacts of climate change.

climatechangetaskMayor Ralph Becker (front row, second from right) participates on the President’s Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience in Washington. Photo credit: Office of Gov. Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii).

Made up of state, local and tribal leaders, the President’s Task Force was established to develop recommendations on ways the federal government can remove barriers to resilient investments, modernize federal grant and loan programs to better support local efforts and develop the information and tools needed to prepare for climate change.

As a member of the taskforce, Mayor Becker gave his assurance that the federal government was listening to local concerns. Over 400 recommendations have been submitted by the local leaders calling for new programs, or reforms in existing programs to enable them to mitigate risk, engage their citizens and build more resilient communities.

Beyond Partisan Debates

For all in attendance, it was refreshing to be able to give climate change the attention it deserves – without focusing on the federal politics. The workshop’s participants particularly appreciated the opportunity to leave their daily responsibilities behind and spend time thinking strategically with colleagues.

At the end of the event, teams huddled with one another. Rather than taking on new responsibilities or additional work, many found ways to apply new strategies to work they were already doing.

“That’s the most encouraging part,” said Martin. “Participants saw that sustainability and resilience aren’t about doing more, but being more thoughtful and strategic with the time and resources you have.”

Tim-Mudd-IMGAbout the author: Tim Mudd is the Senior Associate for Strategic Communications at the National League of Cities.

 

The Supreme Court and Simple Math

freight

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 20-Year Shift in Neighborhood Investing

brooklynA new condo building stands in the the lower east side of Manhattan. Source: Getty Images.

Where we live, the kind of homes we occupy and the quest for a place of our own remains closely tied to that goal on the horizon we call, The American Dream. Consequently, our nation’s leaders, including those at the local level, devote tremendous energy to issues relating to housing and neighborhoods.

A scan of the last twenty years illustrates some significant and notable shifts in approach to these issues – with implications for the kind of housing that gets built, who pays for development and at what level and who has choices in the marketplace and who does not.

For example, let’s look back at 1994 when the Home Investment Partnership Program (HOME) was in its fourth year. The HOME program provides formula grants to states and localities that communities use – often in partnership with local nonprofit groups – to fund building, buying and rehabilitating affordable housing for rent or ownership or providing direct rental assistance to low-income residents.

This program remains a staple of the local landscape and a bulwark in support of housing opportunities for those seeking to reach a critical rung on the ladder to the middle class. In fact, during evaluations of this program during 1994, the value and scope of HOME was not in question; the debate centered on the ease and efficiency of program administration and reporting.

PullQuoteIn the same year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched a bold effort called the National Community Development Initiative. Brought to the table was a coalition of 10 major corporations and foundations collaborating to raise $87.65 million in partnership with HUD to accelerate central city neighborhood renewal in 23 cities. Through this remarkable partnership, $20 million from HUD was matched by $15 million from Prudential, $15 million from the Rockefeller Foundation and $12 million from J. P. Morgan, among other partners.

By 1998, research from the respected Urban Institute, and its team of researchers Christopher Walker and Mark Weinheimer (Weinheimer & Associates), offered the first solid evidence of program progress. For community development corporations in the 23 target cities, the report found that housing unit production was up, budgets were larger, management structures were vastly improved and funding sources were more diversified.

Views about community lending also were different in 1994. At that time, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) was being lauded as a valuable tool to ensure access to credit throughout a community.

Passed into law in 1977 and amended several times, there remained an expectation that this measure increased the ability of advocacy groups, researchers, and other analysts to “perform more-sophisticated, quantitative analyses of banks’ records,” to paraphrase Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke some years later.

There was an expectation that over time, community groups and nonprofit organizations would establish “more-formalized and more-productive partnerships with banks,” thereby influencing the lending policies of banks.

A Different Kind of Partnership

Jumping forward to 2004, you can hear the alarm bells sounding. The HOPE VI program was coming under considerable criticism as a tool to build affordable housing for those most in need. Public housing advocates increasingly needed to rely on private sector investment to serve those who were not able to pay market rates for rent.

Charles Lyons of Arlington, Mass., President of the National League of Cities that year, was so concerned about the “inequality in our communities due to a lack of affordable housing,” that he launched the Divided We Fall campaign to focus on the growing disparities in cities.

partnerpullDisparities continue to confront Americans today, not only in housing and neighborhood amenities but in educational attainment, income and wealth generation, poverty rates, and criminal sentencing.

Despite these disparities, a lively, engaging federal-local partnership on national priorities remains absent. Rather than a partnership with the federal government, all that localities have now is the prospect of federal leverage. This leverage comes in the form of small pools of dollars offered mostly on a competitive basis and encumbered with enough restrictions and conditions to all but eliminate the possibility for experimentation and truly creative thinking from local decision makers.

If we accept the fact that government alone cannot solve the significant challenges that confront communities and that partnerships are the essential ingredient to success, then the only operative question to ask is, ‘What type of partnership will yield the greatest success?’ To that question, the balance of historical fact argues for a partnership of equals, dedicated to achieving consensus, led by those with the proximity and the experience to mobilize community resources in order to achieve positive outcomes for all the stakeholders. It is this recognition and acknowledgement of a wider shared responsibility to the public interest, rather than to any private interest, that is the required component to establish “a more perfect Union.”

It can only be hoped that by the time the National League of Cities stands to celebrate its centennial, the much desired federal-local partnership will be a reality.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.