State of the Cities 2013: Strategically Balancing the Books

This is the sixth post in a seven-part series on trends and themes in local leadership.

The National League of Cities’ 2012 City Fiscal Conditions report  projected a sixth year in a row of declining revenues for cities, and a 25 percent decline in ending balances (reserves) over the last four years. It’s clear that the financial crisis has taken a mighty chomp out of city budgets. But America’s mayors aren’t just standing idle, letting their budgets go by the wayside. They remain remarkably optimistic, innovative, and resilient while making tough choices to balance their budgets.

Our sample of State of the City Addresses provides anecdotal evidence that while there are still hurdles that need clearing (aren’t there always?) city budgets are slowly getting back on track as the economy gradually improves. Improved budget figures have materialized due to city leaders’ willingness to make difficult choices in the face of uncertainty surrounding macroeconomic conditions and state and federal support.

Difficult Choices, Innovative Strategies

Unfortunately, there are no easy paths to a balanced budget. Most budget problems can only be solved using brute force – raise revenue, cut services, or a little bit of both. That doesn’t mean that mayors are getting greedy like Scrooge McDuck or wildly axing services like Paul Bunyan. The speeches we analyzed showed that city leaders are using holistic processes and utilizing municipal finance experts in order to move towards fiscal sustainability.

One city that exemplifies this trend is Fort Wayne, Ind., led by Mayor Tom Henry. Henry and his staff “assembled a team of local and state experts, representatives of city council and staff who are developing strategies to deal with looming budget issues.” Fort Wayne is the first city in Indiana to establish a Fiscal Policy Group, and it recently released a “framework of ideas to save the community money and bring additional revenue to the city.”

Henderson, Nev. is also strategizing to find fiscal balance while cushioning the blow to citizens under Mayor Andy Hafen’s leadership. Hafen entered office at the beginning of a tremendous fiscal crisis. Assessed property valuations decreased from $16.3 billion circa 2009 to around $8 billion today, and consolidated tax funding went from a high of $103 million down to $77 million last year. In response, the city has found ways to save money through long-term debt restructuring and a compensation reduction for executive, managerial, and professional employees. According to Hafen, Henderson is also undertaking a “comprehensive classification and compensation study” that will “ensure our ability to continue to be competitive in how we provide programs and services in the future.”

Mayor Lioneld Jordan of Fayetteville, Ark. stressed a common sense approach, invoking a quote by Harriet Beecher Stowe: “seeing things as they are and doing things as they ought to be done.” In that vein, Jordan has recently initiated a Lean Government program that will improve customer service, increase efficiency, and reduce the need for additional personnel.

Revenue Stream Uncertainty

One of the factors that has taken its toll on city budgets over the last few years is the reduction in funding for cities from state and federal sources. After the surge in funds from the 2009 federal stimulus package that was passed in the wake of the financial crisis, federal and state aid has dried up, leaving holes to fill in city budgets – this is a reality that is likely to become the new normal.

Mayor Bill Bell of Durham, N.C.  acknowledged this when he emphasized the need to continue to “plan for unpredictability in state and federal revenue sources.” The city is grappling with less state funding for transit programs and the end to the federal stimulus-funded “Home Energy Savings Program.” Further, Mayor Bell noted that Durham may have to support non-core services normally funded by the state and county, including judges, district attorney assistants, and forensic labs.

Also threatening cities is the potential end to the tax-exemption for municipal bonds, which have “financed more than $1.65 trillion of infrastructure investment over the last decade (2003-2012),” according to a report released jointly by the National League of Cities, National Association of Counties, and US Conference of Mayors.

Incremental Improvement

In spite of this uncertainty, mayors are beginning to have more reason for cautious optimism about the state of their cities’ finances. Columbus, Ga., on the heels of reforming the city’s employee pension plan that will save taxpayers “some $25 million over 15 years while preserving benefits,” improved its bond rating from Aa2 to Aa1 (Moody’s). An independent audit of North Las Vegas, Nev. found “no findings of internal weakness” despite a reduction in property tax receipts by 56 percent over the last 4 years. And Memphis, Tenn.’s reserve fund balance and capital improvement budget has held steady over the last three years.

In her address, Mayor of Pine Bluff, Ark. Debe Hollingsworth quoted Harvard Business School professor John Kotter as saying “leaders establish the vision for the future and set the strategy for getting there; they cause change. They motivate and inspire others to go in the right direction and they, along with everyone else, sacrifice to get there.” Beneath that vision and strategy lies the budgetary framework that allows the “right direction” to be pursued. Because all the innovation in the world ain’t worth a damn if nobody can pay for it.

State of the Cities 2013: Infrastructure Connects the Dots

This is the fifth post in a seven-part series on trends and themes in local leadership.

On February 4, 2013, Mayor Anthony Foxx left his constituency with a final message about the state of their city, Charlotte, N.C.. In a speech that was both reflective of the past and hopeful for the future, Mayor Foxx used his closing moments to drive home how infrastructure – and in particular a new streetcar – can enhance the quality of life for all the city’s residents:

Let me be clear: this streetcar, and resolving this capital budget, is more important than baseball and more important than football.  It is an opportunity to put this city on a path of living together with more opportunity, more economic vibrancy, more quality neighborhoods, more infill development, better schools, more people who want to live here and more businesses who choose to locate here.

This year’s State of the City Addresses showed that mayors across the country are using infrastructure opportunities in a fashion similar to Mayor Foxx. Their Addresses demonstrate that infrastructure can serve as more than just the physical foundation of cities, and rather become the critical catalyst that drives economic development, connects people and provides equal opportunities.  When envisioned comprehensively, mayors emphasized that infrastructure lies at a unique nexus between people and place; government and residents; and the present and future.  Regardless of the scale or scope of the projects in their cities, mayors’ speeches highlighted how thoughtful infrastructure investment provides an alternate trajectory for their cities.

Ramping up the Roads: Connecting People

Mayors and their public works departments always have and always will play an essential role in infrastructure repair and maintenance (Beaverton, Ore.’s Mayor Denny Doyle said it best when he said: “Beaverton cares about filling potholes—we care about the basics.”).  However, cities, including Beaverton, are moving well beyond the ‘basics’ to reimagine the streetscape in terms of accessibility, usability and enjoyment for all residents.  In his speech, Mayor Dwight Jones of Richmond, Va. spoke of plans for downtown Franklin Street to become a throughway that provides access for bicycles, pedestrians, Segways, as well as car traffic.  Additionally, Franklin Street will run through Main Street Station, a welcome center and multi-modal station that serves as the regional transportation hub.

Across the country in San Diego, Calif., Mayor Bob Filner highlighted the importance of creating neighborhoods that are “as safe, attractive and healthy as they can be.”  He gave the example of how a public- private partnership model for redevelopment, one that the city successfully used in the past, can be expanded to assist other neighborhoods throughout the city. As part of this effort, Mayor Filner stressed that transportation systems which enhance quality of life – such as pedestrian-friendly streets and dedicated bike baths – will be critical to meet the varied needs of residents.

In a similar vein, Mayor Lioneld Jordan of Fayetteville, Ark. stated that, “Our vision for convenient and sustainable transportation, however, is much more than traditional highways and includes alternative transportation as a keystone of our future.”  In his Address, he described the 100 shared lane markings for bicycle routes, as well as over 12,000 feet of sidewalks that were constructed all in the past year.  Similarly, in Beaverton, Mayor Doyle and his staff not only filled those potholes, they also planted nearly 450 trees and 1,200 native plants; upgraded over 170 bike path lights to LEDs; and resurfaced 55 streets last year, working to maintain the city’s infrastructure investments while strengthening their Mayor’s commitment to sustainability.

Working the Waterways: Connecting Neighborhoods

In parallel with the streetscape, mayors recognizing and investing in water infrastructure as an invaluable community asset, one that not only has economic and environmental implications, but also serves as a social thread woven throughout the community.   Mayor AC Wharton, of Memphis, Tenn., prioritized the city’s waterfront as a tool to reconnect neighborhoods and people in a city:

In consideration of our local assets, we can never overlook our prized riverfront.  The riverfront is home to our city’s ritual events and celebrations, and common ground for every citizen and every visitor. Because of this, I asked Jeff… to help me develop a balanced approach that attracts people to the riverfront while offering a menu of options to explore and enjoy.

Other mayors spoke more specifically about protecting their watersheds as a means to protect natural resources and enhance quality of life for residents.  For example, San Diego Mayor Filner spoke about a regional convening to address water scarcity in the Bay Delta, while Mayor Pete Lewis of Auburn, Wash. described a wetland expansion project on the local community college campus  that will increase wetland capacity, filter toxins in rainwater and improve water quality.

Richmond’s Mayor Jones aptly stated the role of water in a city’s future when he said, “We have plans drawn that will connect the river’s use to downtown and remove pedestrian barriers to ensure greater access.” He went on to describe the James River as “our precious gem,” a source of pride for the whole city.

Tying together Transit: Connecting Cities

In Somerville, Mass., Mayor Joseph Curtatone spoke of the green line (subway) extension as critical to driving public and private investment in a historically disinvested area of the city: “For years, we’ve invested heavily in West Somerville while the eastern part of our city soldiered on as a great but underfunded neighborhood. I am here tonight to declare quite unequivocally, it’s East Somerville’s turn.”  In Richmond, Va., Atlanta, Ga. and other cities, mayors similarly acknowledged the potential for transit to reduce poverty in particular neighborhoods of the city, connect people to jobs, and provide transportation alternatives that are accessible and affordable.

These mayors and others also recognized the important role of transit in making their city an effective regional player.  Mayor Lewis described how Auburn has emerged as a central transit hub for the region, with four regional transit lines (and numerous local ones) coming together in the city. He went on to describe the implications of this in terms of establishing the city as a regional hub for the education and healthcare sectors.  In Durham, N.C. Mayor Bill Bell congratulated residents for approving a half cent sales tax in Durham and Orange County that will be used to fund new bus and light rail services. With “providing efficient and friendly transit services” as one of five priority areas he spoke of, Mayor Bell not only emphasized the local benefits of connecting people to jobs, shops and healthcare services within the city, he also directly spoke to his partners outside city limits:

We must also remind our neighbors to the east that we are truly one interconnected region that is home to millions of people who cross back and forth across all three counties each and every day. Our transportation problems are regional problems and we must partner together on a regional basis to solve these issues.

Building Connected Cities

Whether mayors are focusing on improving their streetscapes, connecting their transportation services, or enhancing their waterways, the State of the City Addresses this year made it clear that infrastructure improvements and investments serve as an important tool whereby local governments are both responding to citizen’s immediate needs (e.g. filling potholes) and also working with local and regional partners to envision and implement an alternate future that prioritizes increased quality of life for all residents.  Despite scarce resources (and the possible removal of the municipal bond tax exemption), mayors recognize and are committed to infrastructure investments as a priority strategy to create a connected city.

State of the Cities 2013: Investing in Education Today for a Better Tomorrow

This is the fourth post in a seven-part series on trends and themes in local leadership.

In his 14th State of the City Address delivered at a local high school on Columbus, Ohio’s south side, Mayor Michael B. Coleman stood before fellow city leaders, school district officials, nonprofit and business leaders and residents, passionately calling for the whole community to unite in the struggle for quality education.  “When our kids graduate from high school, they should be able to do one of four things: get a good job, go to college, join the military or start a business,” said Mayor Coleman.  “Too many of our young people are not prepared to do any of the above.”

In the very school building where the mayor gave his Address, more than a quarter of enrolled students struggle with disabilities, more than 91 percent are economically disadvantaged, and less than 56 percent graduate after four years.  For these youth, and others around the country, tough family situations, neighborhood violence and bullying in the classrooms compound the effects of strained school budgets and inadequate or even failing educational policies and practices.

These challenges not only take on moral implications, insists Mayor Coleman, but also wide-ranging consequences for the growth and competiveness of the city.  In particular, increasing the number of residents that graduate from high school and go on to attain a postsecondary credential – whether it is a bachelor’s degree, associate degree, apprenticeship, or certificate – is critical to the success of any local economy.  By one estimate, more than six in 10 jobs will require at least some postsecondary education by 2018.

“We can find a way for every kid in Columbus,” said the mayor.  “But we must first stack hands and become the best city in the nation for every child to receive a quality education.”

Like Mayor Coleman, mayors around the country are stacking hands with community partners to restructure the education system to meet the demands of the 21st century economy.  Although mayoral influence on education can take many shapes depending on the local context, our analysis of mayors’ State of the City Addresses finds that local leaders are seeking greater coherence in the school system by promoting multi-sector partnerships and leveraging local resources to spur new innovations as a means to increase student achievement.

Building and Sustaining Partnerships

In Columbus, Ohio partnerships have been central to “finding a way for every child.”  The Columbus Education Commission, an ambitious, city-led, cross-sector effort, is working to develop a pathway for change by executing extensive community outreach to identify and outline the key roles for the school district, city government, the private sector and civic leadership, among others.  Formal partnerships or governance structures that incorporate city leadership are essential to developing education systems that truly respond to the entire needs of the community.  They break down silos, spread accountability, and leverage important community assets to work towards common goals.

In Richmond, Va., Mayor Dwight Jones is working cooperatively with the superintendent of Richmond Public Schools to resolve current funding issues and strengthen the future of the community’s children.  In his State of the City Address, Mayor Jones touted the Schools’ Accountability and Efficiency Review Task Force.  This group is made up of individuals with backgrounds in municipal and state finance and is tasked with identifying solutions to an immediate budget shortfall, and assessing long-term opportunities to help Richmond schools begin to establish a strong fiscal foundation for the future.

Numerous partnerships help Salt Lake City, Utah support and strengthen educational opportunities for children and youth.  Mentioned in Mayor Ralph Becker’s Address, the Capital City Education Plan was developed by the city, the Salt Lake City School District and the University of Utah, with input from parents, non-profits and the business community.  The initiative has pioneered a “cultivation model” that centers around supporting the family and engaging students from birth to career in lifelong learning.  “We’ve worked diligently for five years to convene partners and play an integral role to improve educational opportunities and outcomes in Salt Lake City,” said Mayor Becker.

Innovating in Education

As education continues to gain prominence as a key driver of economic growth, municipal leaders have taken on both formal and informal roles to support comprehensive reforms and new innovations.  City leaders are spreading “cradle to career” strategies, more systematically interconnecting workforce development and education, and leveraging local resources to support critical educational functions, among many other efforts.

For example, in Mayor Tom Menino’s State of the City Address, he spoke of education reforms in Boston, Mass. that have led to turnaround schools, in-district charter schools, overhauled teacher evaluations, and new classroom resources.  In addition, as part of Mayor Menino’s comprehensive efforts to improve access to quality education, the city has established universal, voluntary Pre-K operated by Boston Public Schools and a robust system of high-quality, community-based care available for the majority of preschool-aged children.

In Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer is building a workforce with the technical skills to thrive in the 21st century by linking education and workforce training.   “We spot training opportunities, and work with our educational partners to capitalize on them,” said Mayor Fischer.   “That’s why we developed computer-coding and sales training programs to quickly respond to market needs in the past six months.”

To the east, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, of Baltimore, Md., worked with the City Council to approve an historic increase in new funding for school renovation – the single largest local source of school renovation funding ever approved in the city’s modern history.  In addition, the Mayor and the City Council have implemented a dedicated local funding stream for continued school renovation.

Acting with Urgency

Evidenced by this year’s State of the City Addresses, it’s clear that cities are not standing on the sideline when it comes to education.  To be attractive to businesses and families alike, city leaders recognize that more residents must obtain the skills required for the best-paying and fastest-growing jobs.  “Great cities are smart, innovative and entrepreneurial,” notes Mayor Ralph Becker.  “It takes brainpower to achieve success as a thriving, livable city.”

The urgency to build and expand this “brainpower” has cultivated new innovations that are already having an impact in communities.  For mayors, the stakes are simply too high not to take on this challenge.  As Mayor Tom Menino put it, “our most important collection of talent lies in our young people.  So our first task is improving public education in our city.”

State of the Cities 2013: Expanding the Reach of Public Safety

This is the third post in a seven-part series on trends and themes in local leadership.

Atlanta, Ga. Mayor Kasim Reed announced in his State of the City Address that the Atlanta Police Department recruited more than 700 new police officers last year, and now has a force more than 1,940 strong, making it the biggest force in the city’s history.  But Mayor Reed was quick to note that this expansion is about much more than bragging rights about the city’s massive police force, it’s about having a better trained force, one with improved response capabilities, one that is responsive to the needs of citizens and able to reduce crime and save lives.

As Mayor Reed recognized, a comprehensive public safety program goes beyond simply addressing personnel, equipment and budget concerns. Public safety is an integral and interconnected part of the bedrock on which communities organize themselves. As Pine Bluff, Ark. Mayor Debe Hollingsworth stated, “It is the heartbeat to any healthy community.”  In their State of the City Address this year, we saw mayors from all over the country making the link between public safety and economic development, neighborhood revitalization efforts, civic engagement and a host of other essential city functions.  Many went beyond just acknowledging these connections; they’ve developed innovative policies and programs that explicitly used these linkages to build stronger communities.

Public Safety and Economic Development: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Recognizing innovation within the realm of public safety as it relates to economic development and revitalization is itself a relatively new and innovative concept. And it’s one that Salt Lake City, Utah has embraced. The city is strategically locating its new public safety building in the heart of downtown with the intention of attracting community activities, festivals and events as a means to regenerate development in the area.  Mayor Ralph Becker also noted that “the building will be an architectural and engineering feat as the first net-zero public safety facility in the nation.”

Baton, Rouge, La. Mayor Kip Holden was excited that his city recently had “an unexpected opportunity to purchase the 24-acre former Women’s Hospital site to convert it to a state-of-the-art public safety complex,” which will provide Baton Rouge with “a unique opportunity to create a combined law enforcement presence in the center of the City.” This public safety-economic redevelopment project goes hand-in-glove with Mayor Holden’s focus on blight elimination and economic revitalization, as discussed in the previous State of the Cities 2013 post.

In Baltimore, Md., Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake noted, “The biggest challenge confronting our neighborhoods is the scourge of 50 years of disinvestment and the thousands of vacant homes left behind.” The city’s Vacants to Value program reduces blighted properties throughout the city by tearing down or rehabbing vacant city-owned properties. Mayor Rawlings-Blake proudly reported that “250 vacants have been torn down, nearly a thousand more are being rehabbed, and sales of vacant city-owned properties have increased five-fold. More than 30 acres of vacant lots have been turned over to create community green spaces.” As a result of Baltimore’s economic revitalization efforts, these blighted spaces that dotted the city’s landscape and posed a threat to public safety are now a community amenity.

Civic Engagement and Partnerships: Ties that Bind

Solutions to public safety challenges faced by local governments don’t happen in a vacuum; they occur when city leaders include residents in the problem-solving process. Mayor Steve Miklos of Folsom, Calif. echoed this idea with the statement: “The community supports our public safety efforts by serving as our eyes and ears.”

Several mayors noted an encouraging reduction in overall crime rates in recent years. In cities such as Memphis, Tenn. and Salem, Ore., this was attributed in large part to ramped-up civic engagement efforts on the part of law enforcement. Memphis Mayor AC Wharton and the Memphis Police Department rolled out a new community-oriented policing initiative to help law enforcement become more attuned to the needs and concerns of the citizens that they serve and protect. Results have been positive so far. In neighborhoods where this initiative has been implemented, police have seen a noticeable drop in criminal activity.

In Salem, the police department collaborated with neighborhood watch groups and community organizations to address complaints and concerns about a variety of issues, including loitering and the increase of homeless encampments in city parks. Mayor Anna Paterson explained the value of partnerships in solving these issues: “By bringing people from businesses, neighborhood groups, bicycle groups and park users together with representatives from mental health and addiction services, faith groups, shelter operators, and law enforcement officers, we began to understand the patterns that lead people into desperate circumstances, and the resources needed to turn this situation around.”

A Means to an End

Mayors across the country are making smart and innovative investments in public safety, “investments that…make sure that some family, some mom, some dad, some college student is making it home safely because of the blanket of protection that we chose to provide,” as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed aptly stated. Cities are using innovation to foster communication between residents, local officials, and public safety workers towards the goal of helping public safety employees do their jobs better.  “It’s not the buildings, it’s not the equipment, it’s not the police cars, or the fire engines that make a difference,” said Mayor Eric Hogue of Wylie, Texas. He continued, “it is the people…and the police officers and firefighters who have made a difference in protecting our city.”

State of the Cities 2013: As the Economy Goes, So Goes the City

This is the second post in a seven-part series on trends and themes in local leadership.

Every year, economic development accomplishments and future goals feature prominently in mayors’ State of the City Addresses. It’s easy to understand why; as the economy goes, so goes the city. Constituents want to know that their mayor is doing everything he or she can to provide good jobs and a rich quality of life. And from our analysis of mayors’ speeches this year, it’s evident that they are fighting the good fight for economic vibrancy.

But just because economic development is a long-running city function, that doesn’t mean cities are using the same old methods.  Mayors in select cities are showing that by using tailored strategies tied to their unique city characteristics and broad-based approaches that are applicable to every locality, they are able to leverage limited resources to build complete communities.

The speeches we analyzed were chock-full of references to economic development programs and successes, but notable commonalities arose, including a strong focus on partnerships, neighborhood revitalization, and improving transportation hubs.

Building Strong Partnerships

As city governments continue to face budgetary constraints for the foreseeable future, partnerships continue to provide a way to accomplish economic development goals efficiently and effectively, and also pioneer new methods. Salt Lake City, Utah, for example, partnered with the University of Utah to convene a conference on the potential of crowdfunding to provide start-up capital for emerging technology companies. “You can expect to see more economic development partnering efforts like this from the city in the year to come,” noted Mayor Ralph Becker. This is a great sign, and something other mayors alluded to as well.

Partnerships can be used in creative ways to spark entrepreneurship à la Salt Lake City, but they can also be used to streamline regulatory processes, which entrepreneurs, small- and medium-sized businesses, and multinational corporations can all appreciate. Mayor Andy Hafen of Henderson, Nev. noted the creation of a multijurisdictional business licensing process, an initiative for which Henderson served as the regional project lead. Wichita, Kan. Mayor Carl Brewer proudly touted the merger of his city and county code services offices, which is “making it easier for our private business partners to build and grow our region.” Notice that these streamlining actions are making these cities more business friendly, while also demonstrating productive regional cooperation.

Creating Vibrant and Stable Neighborhoods

Thriving urban neighborhoods improve the quality of life for all city residents, not just for Richard Florida’s “creative class.” If done successfully, redevelopment projects can produce positive externalities for the entire population. City leaders have recognized the importance of both their downtowns and struggling neighborhoods, and are using strategic partnerships, and sometimes unconventional means, to achieve encouraging ends.

One such example is Durham, N.C.’s Southside Revitalization Project, where Duke University is providing $10,000 loans to no less than ten university employees interested in buying homes in the neighborhood. Mayor Bill Bell added, “That’s the kind of partnership and support that truly makes this community a very special place.” Another notable example is Columbus, Ohio, where the city has partnered with a local hospital in a declining neighborhood to develop a plan to “stabilize the neighborhood and encourage residential and commercial investment.”

In Baton Rouge, La., Mayor Kip Holden is committed to removing blight from his city. To revitalize its Smiley Heights area, the city will “partner with the state, the Baton Rouge Community College, and private investors to create a development that will house an auto technology center, residential housing, and retail.” And Columbus, Ga. Mayor Teresa Tomlinson is pushing hard for her city to enact redevelopment powers available under state law to tackle declining neighborhoods.

Improving Transportation Hubs

Airports, though sometimes unfairly taken for granted, are gateways to domestic and international markets, as well as hubs for business travel and tourism. So putting a lot of weight behind airport improvements makes a lot of sense, because they can provide a significant economic boost. The airport (and its related businesses) in Salem, Ore. contributes “2,100 jobs regionally, $65 million in annual wages, and $240 million in regional business sales.”

The importance of local and regional airports was a recurring theme in many of the speeches, from smaller communities to cities with international reputations. Auburn, Wash. Mayor Pete Lewis noted that work is beginning on a new master plan for its municipal airport. And Memphis, Tenn. Mayor AC Wharton has created an Air Task Force to develop a plan to increase air service at the city’s international airport.

Cities are also using coastal ports (those that have them) as key economic drivers. Baltimore, Md., led by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, fought hard to improve the city’s port in advance of the Panama Canal expansion currently underway. The city’s actions in solidifying the port’s infrastructure “will help bring jobs while securing the economic future of the port for generations.” In his first term, San Diego, Calif. Mayor Bob Filner is making the city’s port, as well as its airport, high priority hubs. He noted that he will push for needed infrastructure improvements that will “[enhance] freight movement from our border through our sea port and our airport.”

Producing Tangible Results

Economic development will always be a key arrow in a mayor’s quiver. In fact, most mayors probably have a separate quiver devoted entirely to economic development. But it’s more than just having an arsenal of tools to use; it’s about putting these tools to work in innovative ways to produce real, tangible results. The State of the City Addresses in 2013 exemplify how cities employ what limited resources they have in thoughtful and creative ways.

Mayor Denny Doyle, of Beaverton, Ore. noted that “If we’re to grow our economy, the private sector needs a city government that – as a partner – is responsive and nimble.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Building for the Future in an Uncertain Present: State of the Cities 2013

“Synergy is when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When applied to finding new solutions to the challenges we face in building a community, this requires an inclusive process that seeks input and ideas from many people. In doing so, we can generate new and better ways of doing business.”

On January 16th, Mayor Tom Dale delivered an inspiring and optimistic State of the City Address titled, “Our People, Our Progress, Our Path Forward,” to the citizens of Nampa, Idaho.  In it, he emphasized people and relationships as the single largest community asset that contributed to solving the challenges of the previous year, challenges that included “reduction in revenues, increased demand for services, and uncertainty at the national level.”  Mayor Dale’s speech was characterized by renewed optimism, and a sense that perhaps the answers to these challenges lay in a fresh outlook towards the city’s future and the creative use of local resources.

The sentiment put forth by Mayor Dale and the “synergy” he describes is a story that rings familiar not only to this community of roughly 82,000 residents, but to small, medium and large cities across America.  In 2013, local governments are facing similar challenges as in prior years, but more than ever, they see community assets—the people, the relationships and the partnerships—as key to solving these challenges.

Regardless of the issue, mayors, city staff and residents are working with their fellow citizens to address traditional challenges through creative problem-solving, often utilizing programs and/or policies to connect what have typically been thought of as disparate issues in new and innovative ways.  Whether the strategies include creative uses of technology, partnership-building in and outside city government, or simply better communication and coordination, mayors and their staff are working to build strong and healthy communities for their constituents—communities that thrive on creativity, transparency and trusted relationships.

Reflecting this, mayors’ State of the City Addresses this year have embraced innovation and experimentation as critical elements to solve persistent challenges in their cities around five major issue areas:

  • Regardless of whether the economy is humming or in crisis, economic development is always at the forefront of local policy making, with mayors often unofficially identifying themselves as the Chief Economic Development Officers of their municipalities. Mayors from cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina and Auburn, Washington. tout improvements to their airports, which connect cities to important international and domestic trading partners, as an important local economic development driver.  Others recognize the critical role of partnering with a variety of institutions (universities, regional cities and private organizations). And as working millennials seek out thriving urban centers to live, work and play, downtown revitalization is a key focus for mayors in cities such as Durham, North Carolina and Wichita, Kansas.
  • With public safety affecting all sectors of city life, from health and education to economic development, it is encouraging to find that several cities have seen a reduction in overall crime rates in recent years. In cities such as Memphis, Tennessee and Salem, Oregon, mayors attribute this, in large part, to new community-oriented policing initiatives designed to help law enforcement become more attuned to the needs and concerns of the citizens that they serve and protect. Other mayors, from cities such as Fayetteville, Arkansas, tout technology advancements to enhance first responder capabilities as a means of improving overall public safety, resulting in a better quality of life for city residents. ­
  • City leaders increasingly view education reform as critical to developing their local labor force and attracting and retaining businesses. Through engaging in creative local partnerships with school districts, Pre-k providers, human service organizations, and local businesses, mayors are leading innovative efforts to strengthen the educational pipeline for all residents. For example, in Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Michael Coleman is working to establish a new public-private partnership for education, focused on attracting and keeping the best teachers and principals; providing access to quality Pre-k; closing the digital divide; and encouraging growth of high quality public and charter schools.
  • Infrastructure demands are not being met with any single solution. Rather, city leaders are using limited funds to imagine multi-modal transportation systems that improve accessibility for more residents—systems that include street car lines, bus lines and bicycle and pedestrian networks. At the same time, many city mayors are taking a holistic approach to infrastructure planning, recognizing the connections between streets, water systems, sewer lines and urban forests as a means to improve quality of life for residents while addressing pressing environmental issues such as climate change and sea-level rise.
  • Since the financial crisis, municipal finance has become a hot topic due to the immense challenges that cities face in meeting budgetary obligations. The aftereffects of the recession still linger, forcing city mayors to put in place tangible solutions to ensure fiscal sustainability.  For example, Fort Wayne, Indiana established a fiscal policy group of experts to narrow its focus on brainstorming strategic options to stem fiscal decay.  Columbus, Georgia reformed its employee pension system, which, combined with other reforms, has contributed to an improved bond rating.

Over the last several weeks, National League of Cities staff from the Center for Research & Innovation and the Institute for Youth, Education & Families analyzed 2013 State of the City Addresses given by mayors and city managers from 30 U.S. cities with diverse populations and geographies, with the intention of identifying cross-cutting issues and innovative solutions. During the week of March 25th, we will publish a blog post each day that reflects one of the five themes identified above.  This series is not meant to be an exhaustive representation of the conditions in cities across America; rather, it is meant to provide a sample of trends in local innovations that can serve as a baseline for discussion and inspiration.

In that vein, we are looking to hear from you:  Do these examples represent the types of creative problem-solving taking place in your community?  Are there innovative programs and policies that your city is utilizing to confront persistent challenges?   We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below and as we continue to post the rest of this series!State of the Cities

General Dempsey: Trust Runs From the Battlefield into Cities

During his presentation at the Congressional City Conference last week, the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, walked nearly 1,200 attendees through multiple aspects of a photo (below) showing two soldiers from Afghanistan. The General underscored the importance of veterans in communities and the need for local leaders to ensure they receive the welcome home they deserve.

Trust

With each piece of the photograph, the General elaborated on the notion of trust. “Trust is what binds together those who serve, but I would also suggest to you today it’s what binds us together – those that wear the uniform and those of you that serve in your communities,” said General Dempsey.

The General mentioned his appreciation of NLC’s leadership on veterans’ issues, and he also spoke about his recognition that those in the audience were people willing “to take positions of leadership” and “who are committed to trying to make America safer, more stable, more secure and more prosperous.” “Leadership is always difficult, and it is especially difficult these days, it seems to me,” General Dempsey said.

The General discussed how the current success of our military in combat is due, in part, to their ability to concentrate on their job, knowing they are part of a team. “If we’re going to ask some young men and women from your communities, from my military, to go out and do that kind of work, we have to support them. It’s just not an option. And it’s not an option because of that word trust.”

The Chairman noted that the soldiers in the picture trusted each other by protecting each other’s backs; they were calling about something they needed and trusted they would receive. The General also noted that the solider in the foreground was married and elaborated on the trust that solider needed about his family’s needs being met.

Local leaders know that virtually no issue in their community can be addressed by only one stakeholder. To best support veterans, local leaders need to exert their leadership and bring attention to the issue of returning and existing veterans. Local leaders must trust that their leadership at home will unlock their city’s “sea of goodwill” for veterans.

Leveraging your position always comes with risks. The risk of failure or the risk of criticism. Some even talk about the risk of success. These fears can sometimes inhibit action. In all matters, fear or uncertainty must be addressed in order for action to happen.

However, when it comes to our veterans, local leaders must trust that like the soldiers who guard each other’s backs, other community members will support you and have your back when you raise the important and sometimes difficult questions about what can be done locally to improve our efforts to meet the needs of veterans and provide them with the opportunity to continue being “the next generation of great Americans.”

Trust and leadership are easy to talk about but not always easy to practice.

If we truly believe what we say about our veterans, if we believe they deserve the best, then local leaders must trust in their leadership, and in their cities, to come together and find ways to make sure our veterans are given every opportunity to continue their battlefield successes at home.

Click here to read the Chairman’s full remarks and go to www.nlc.org/veteranshousing learn more about what you can do to welcome veterans home.

“My job is to make sure people are safe.”

When was the last time you saw public officials representing Americans of all backgrounds having a reasonable discussion on how to prevent gun violence?

For the mayors addressing a standing-room only crowd of municipal officials visiting Washington, D.C., for NLC’s Congressional City Conference this morning, the impact of gun-related deaths and injuries is personal, immediate, and demanding of a pragmatic and sensible response.

The speakers discussed the ease with which guns end up in the wrong hands and the tragic consequences for their cities: Moscow, Idaho (population 24,000), where a courthouse and church became the site of a sniper shooting in 2007; Aurora, Colo. (population 335,000), where 12 people were murdered at a movie theater last July; and Philadelphia, where a disproportionate number of the more than 300 homicides that take place each year involve African-American male victims and perpetrators.  They also described how their experiences on the front lines of the nation’s gun violence epidemic has motivated them and their colleagues to consider practical solutions and take action.

Mayor Nancy Chaney shared how the Moscow City Council struggled to reach consensus on proposed state regulations and ultimately provided unanimous support for a set of recommendations made by local law enforcement.  Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan discussed how the theater shooting prompted local leaders to begin asking questions, and called for a less polarized debate on the issue of gun violence.  He emphasized the need to fund mental health services, while at the same time agreeing that reasonable restrictions such as universal background checks for gun purchases make sense.  Mayor Michael Nutter described how banning high-capacity magazines matters for Philadelphians: while the number of shootings in the city has declined, the mortality rate has increased, mainly because more bullets are being fired.  “My job is to make sure people are safe,” said Nutter, who is leading a national initiative to reduce violent deaths of African-American men and boys through Cities United.

A fourth speaker, Brina Milikowski, representing Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the New York City mayor’s office, explained why sensible regulations would make communities safer.  States that have closed loopholes enabling people to circumvent federally-required background checks by purchasing guns from private sellers and that have enacted other strong gun laws have much lower rates of shooting deaths.

The human toll of firearm deaths was echoed throughout the panel discussion: a woman in Wisconsin whose murder by her husband after obtaining a restraining order could have been prevented by a more effective background check system; two police officers killed in San Jose, Calif., when Councilmember Pete Constant, the session moderator, first joined the city’s police force; a university student shot by her professor.  “We have to personalize this,” said Mayor Chaney.  “This really is about individuals and families.”

Click here to learn more about NLC’s position on federal proposals to reduce gun violence or read NLC’s National Municipal Policy on public safety and crime prevention.

Local Food Systems Strongest with Local Leadership

The 1969 fire on the Cuyahoga River  has gone down in history for causing a nationwide outcry that compelled the federal government to clean up and ensure the safety of our waterways. This, amongst other efforts, resulted in the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the creation of the Federal Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Through rulemaking and enforcement, the CWA established a force in America that would protect our waterways, no longer allowing immediate economic gratification to trump environmental costs.

A similar outcry surrounding local food systems is currently being heard across the country. Frustrations about food access inequality and the impacts of unhealthy foods are some of the commonly raised challenges at the community level. Mounting problems exist throughout all stages of the food system: independent farmers and agricultural corporations are facing record droughts, sending food prices skyrocketing; the vast majority of food production practices are causing a deleterious effect on water, air and soils; and our country wastes food in record numbers, impacting food costs, access and hunger.

Could this potentially mean that food systems are veering towards the course of other resource issues that eventually required federal intervention?

Picture this scenario: A group of mayors and USDA administrators are meeting about the rigidity of Healthy Food Act requirements, mandated by the federal government. A mayor is recounting her ten-year legal fight over being unable to provide healthy food in a community food desert. A superintendent is faced with removing sugar-sweetened beverages from her schools, not because of local pressure, but because of a federal law.

In actuality, communities have taken steps to build sustainable food systems in their communities, such as policies to source food locally, create farm-to-school programs and incentivize local farmers to adopt organic practices. Currently these activities are developed and implemented for and by local communities, not as a result of federal intervention or a response to the threat of enforcement. I am willing to bet that should our national food challenges eventually require federal involvement, mayors would feel frustrated about enforcing federal regulations in their communities on the inherently local issues of food access or production.

In many cases, an absence of federal enforcement or legislation provides an opportunity for communities to be entrepreneurially nimble. City leaders make and implement decisions affecting food production, access and disposal based on local contexts, conditions and needs. Cities work together with partners including concerned citizens, private industry, universities, small businesses and the non-profit community.

Cities have a critical role to play in strengthening local and national food systems. Currently these systems are strained and fragmented, but can be restored through local leadership rather than requiring federal intervention. Local leaders have already accomplished much in the area of food systems support and it’s time that we share effective practices, model policies, and successful requests for proposals. Let’s foster a competitive spirit from town to town, identify which cities have figured out practical, innovative ways to make healthy food available to all of its residents, and celebrate local leadership on this issue!

NLC is tackling Local Food Systems as a priority issue for 2013 and looking forward to supporting cities through a newly launched section on the Sustainable Cities Institute website.

As we continue to develop these resources we want to hear from you: what resources, tools or topics would be most helpful to assist your efforts in developing a strong, sustainable and healthy food system in your community?

Send feedback, ideas, successful practices or questions to David DeVaughn, NLC National Urban Fellow, at devaughn@nlc.org.

Losing a Youth Development Icon

I know that some municipal officials devote their entire lives to public service.  In Boston, Tom Menino has served as mayor for nearly 20 years, and spent almost a decade before that as a member of the City Council.  Richard Daley dominated Chicago’s City Hall and political life for a generation, as his father had done in an earlier era.  And Joseph Riley in Charleston, S.C., has surely earned the moniker of “mayor for life,” first elected in 1975 and now entering his 38th year in office.

Most people who work within city government, however, follow a somewhat different path.  Many develop skills and expertise in community-based groups or other nonprofit organizations, often grappling with the most practical and challenging problems at the neighborhood level.  Their knowledge and commitment lead them to city hall, taking on roles that enable them to pursue citywide reforms.  Through their innovations, they make a lasting difference in their cities and then often move on, in many cases becoming champions for important causes at the state or national level.

Such was the path followed by Richard Murphy, former commissioner of New York City’s Department of Youth Services in the early 1990s, who became one of the nation’s leading experts and guiding lights on youth development.  As the head of several national nonprofits, Richard was a source of inspiration and wisdom for me and the National League of Cities, serving on NLC’s Council on Youth, Education, and Families since 2000.  Now we will have to find our way forward without him – Richard was taken from us by a fast-moving cancer on February 14, leaving behind a wonderful legacy of accomplishment and a vast network of admirers who are mourning his loss.

Richard’s journey in the field of youth development began in the neighborhoods of New York City.  At the top of his resume, Richard referenced a chance encounter with a nine-year-old boy at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in the South Bronx and said that the boy’s answer to a simple question – Why aren’t you in school? – launched him on his lifelong quest to expand opportunities for disadvantaged children and youth.

He spent the next two decades as the founder and director of a community-based organization, the Rheedlen Center for Children and Families, with the mission of securing educational access and success for elementary school truants.  Through Rheedlen, Richard established new funding streams for preventive and school-based social services, while also leading the redesign – long before such efforts were in vogue – of a low-performing junior high school into four small high schools (the first new high schools in Harlem in 40 years).  The seeds he planted at Rheedlen continued to bear fruit long after his departure as the organization evolved and grew into what we know today as the Harlem Children’s Zone.

But Richard didn’t stop there.  In 1990, he responded to the call of public service by agreeing to serve as former New York City Mayor David Dinkins’ commissioner of youth services.  At the height of concerns about crime and violence in the city, Richard knew that part of the solution had to be about opportunities for the constructive engagement of young people during out-of-school time.  His visionary leadership led to the creation, as part of the Mayor’s Safe City, Safe Streets initiative, of the first Beacon Schools that opened school doors beyond the traditional 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. school day.   The Beacon School model has since been replicated in major cities across America, including Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

When the Dinkins Administration came to a close, Richard moved to Washington, D.C., and quickly made a major impact on the national scene as director of the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research at what was then the Academy for Educational Development.  He championed the concept of community youth mapping and the replication of community schools, maintaining a relentless focus on building the capacity of local leaders to improve youth outcomes.

In the last years of his life, Richard returned to New York where he promoted access to nutritious food and adequate income, including the development of the nation’s largest Earned Income Tax Credit outreach and tax preparation effort.  Most recently, he devoted most of his time and energies to an ambitious effort focused on “iMapping America,” seeking to harness emerging technologies and what he termed the “collective intelligence of young people” to guarantee all children and youth access to safe and accurate information to make better decisions.

Much will be done and written in the coming months to honor Richard Murphy’s life and contributions to the field of youth development.  He accomplished a great deal, and he also had a wonderful spirit and a huge heart that was apparent to and treasured by so many who had the honor and the joy of working with him.  Richard never lost his sense of optimism, and his belief that we can always make the world a better place for our children and youth.  It’s a spirit and commitment that can serve as an enduring guide for all of us who work on behalf of cities.

To learn more about Richard Murphy’s life and accomplishments, see the New York Times obituary published on February 17, 2013.