Bright Spots in Community Engagement: Chicago Residents Get a Big Say in How Public Money is Spent

This post was written by Matt Leighninger, Executive Director, Deliberative Democracy Consortium.

This is the third post in a  blog series highlighting communities that were profiled in the new Knight Foundation and NLC joint report, Bright Spots in Community Engagement.  The report showcases 14 U.S. communities that are building greater civic participation and engagement from the bottom up.

The story of Chicago’s 49th Ward shows why many public officials are placing a new emphasis on community engagement. Alderman Joe Moore brought the concept of Participatory Budgeting (PB) to his ward, and has continued to be its most active proponent. He embraced PB partly because he thought it would reverse his political fortunes; the process has not only transformed Moore’s career, it has altered his own perception of his role as an elected official.

After serving for 16 years as a Chicago alderman, Moore was very narrowly re-elected in the 2007 election. This experience was something of a wake-up call for Moore, who felt he needed to reconnect with many of his constituents.

Moore had been exposed to a number of public engagement principles and practices as a member of the Democratic Governance Panel of the National League of Cities; he attended a workshop on PB in 2007, and started planning his own process with the help of the Participatory Budgeting Project, based in New York City.

The 49th Ward PB process includes representatives from civic, religious and community organizations. In the first phase, meetings are held to describe PB as a tool and outline how residents can engage in the process. Participants then form into committees that develop options for spending in areas such as parks, arts, and transportation.  The committees brainstorm and review project ideas, conduct research, obtain cost estimates, and ultimately select their projects for inclusion on a ward-wide ballot.

Ward voters select their top projects from the PB process, and the ward’s “menu money” is used to implement these projects.  In Chicago, each alderman is allotted a line item (referred to as menu money), amounting to approximately $1 million annually to spend on capital improvements and initiatives within the ward.

In 2010, 36 individual proposals appeared on the ballot, and more than 1,600 residents voted in the election. The number of voters dipped to roughly 1,000 voters in 2011. Participation on the neighborhood assemblies apparently reached its highest level in the third year of PB, and the number of voters rose again to 1,300 in 2012.

The Consent – and Ideas, Energy, and Support – of the Governed

The 49th Ward, which encompasses the neighborhood of Rogers Park, has roughly 60,000 residents living in an area of two square miles. It’s extremely diverse, with over 80 languages spoken, and is about 30% Latino, 30% African American, 30% white, and 10% Asian.

Moore asserts that PB has significantly increased the number and diversity of people engaged in the public life of the ward.  “The people that are really involved in the leadership process and community groups are not the usual suspects – these are new people, not the meeting junkies…and that has just been terrific to see,” says Moore.

In addition to increasing involvement in decision-making, PB in the 49th Ward seems to have activated citizens to be more active problem-solvers. For example, a dog park and a community garden, two projects that were initiated and approved through the process, are now operated by teams of neighborhood volunteers. Although Detroit and Philadelphia do not currently engage in participatory budgeting, their community engagement efforts are similar to those happening Chicago in encouraging citizens to be more active in community building and problem solving.

In 2011, Alderman Moore was reelected with 72% of the vote. “I take the result of the last election as a sign of popular support for participatory budget and any similar initiatives that nurture citizen engagement and promote participatory governance,” Moore says. “I take it as a sign that people in the 49th ward want to be active participants in governing rather than being passive observers of government.”

Bright Spots in Community Engagement: Philadelphia – “Civic Fusion” at Work

This is the first post in a blog series highlighting communities that were profiled in the forthcoming Knight Foundation and NLC joint report, Bright Spots in Community Engagement. The report showcases 14 U.S. communities that are building greater civic participation and engagement from the bottom up.

“My belief is that if we keep helping these good guys [in City Hall] do good work, their colleagues will need to learn the value of partnering with engaged citizens.”
— Alex Hillman, Indy Hall

Philadelphia

For several decades after its industrial heyday, the City of Philadelphia suffered the steady outflow of residents, neighborhoods slowly emptying out even as the city’s prestigious universities attracted greater numbers of educated young people to the region.

This “brain drain” was severe: as recently as 2004, a study from the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia found that fewer than 30 percent of out-of-state students that attended Philadelphia-area colleges remained in the area after graduating. They took their talents instead to New York, San Francisco, and Austin – cities with strong reputations for finance, technology, arts and culture, and entrepreneurialism.

And then this began to change – slowly, at first, and then so rapidly that by 2010, when the nonprofit Campus Philly repeated the Economy League’s study, a strong majority (61%) of out-of-state students graduating from Philadelphia colleges indicated that they had remained in the city. The decennial census showed Philadelphia’s population holding steady for the first time since 1950, but this headline figure masked a very encouraging increase of 50,000 25-34 year olds absorbed by newly fashionable neighborhoods around the business district’s perimeter.

In concert with this demographic change there has been a sustained and imaginative effort from the mayor’s office, from philanthropists such as the Knight Foundation and city boosters such as Select Greater Philadelphia and Campus Philly to engage young Philadelphians as entrepreneurs and civic leaders.

Bright spots include loosely-knit collaboratives such as “Open Access Philadelphia” (OAP), which have built the tools and relationships that help fuse young activists and entrepreneurs to the civic life of the city:

  • In 2010, joining a broad coalition that won $12 million for the city to expand broadband access, mostly through the services of existing nonprofits
  • In 2011, launching the city’s Open Data Portal during the city’s first “Tech Week” and hosting the first cohort of Code for America fellows
  • In 2012, working collaboratively with Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration to issue an executive order committing the city to data sharing and hiring the city’s first Chief Data Officer, Mark Headd, formerly of Code for America.

While this work has not been driven primarily by city officials, Chris Wink of Technically Philly (an organization often described as the Philadelphia tech scene’s “Rolling Stone”) embraced the city’s support: “when the people who are charged with securing the future of your city embraces innovation, it sends a message that Philadelphia is moving past the decline that has characterized it since the 1970s.”

This week, Philadelphia celebrates its third Philly Tech Week, expected to attract even greater interest than last year’s 10,000 attendees, 88 events and 40 sponsors.  Local officials will again be outside of City Hall to engage with Philadelphia’s entrepreneurs and civic-minded residents  where they live, at co-working spaces along North 3rd Street , at “unconferences” and independent businesses throughout the city.

This Philadelphia story has been a great success so far in embodying “civic fusion,” a term widely used within the city’s government and entrepreneurial technology scenes to describe the public-private efforts to bolster community engagement around technology and data sharing.

New Days, New Ways: Innovation is Needed to Tackle Housing Problems

During the past several months, there have been national conversations about what the appropriate next steps should be in federal housing policy as a national “housing recovery” becomes a reality for more and more Americans.

In February, after a 16 month process, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) released its report, Housing America’s Future, in an effort to “provide a blueprint for an entirely new system of housing finance for both the homeownership and rental markets.” Several weeks later, the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) held a conference focusing on youth and family homelessness.

While each of these events approached the issues of housing and homelessness from different perspectives, there are commonalities. Some of the recommendations are already in practice in some communities, and can help other cities across the country in their ongoing efforts to eliminate homelessness.Within the guiding principles of the BPC report, two elements speak directly to the challenge of homelessness. First, the Commission recommends “a more targeted approach to providing rental assistance that directs scarce resources to the lowest-income renters while insisting on a high level of performance by housing providers.” In his remarks on behalf of the Commission, former Mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Clinton, Henry Cisneros, noted that federal housing assistance is provided to only one of every four extremely low income (ELI) households.

To put this in some context, for example, in Tampa/St. Petersburg, Florida, the area median income (AMI) is $56,800. For a household to be considered “extremely low income (ELI),” they must earn 30% or less of AMI. In the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, an ELI family earns about $17,040 annually (or $1,420 monthly). As local leaders consider the impact this level of income/poverty has on their overall economy, they would be wise to recognize that when the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the area is $915, there remains only $505 for medical costs, transportation, food, clothing, schooling expenses, etc., which likely does not stretch that far for a single mom and her two children.

As Mr. Cisneros points out, only one in four households at this level of poverty receives housing assistance. As a result, the negative economic impacts on the rest of the community resulting from those not receiving assistance are immense. These households may not have the purchasing power they require to meet all of their needs, which can impact local businesses’ revenue streams.

To combat this, the second BPC recommendation encourages reforming the current system used to distribute housing subsidies, such as Section 8, 202, or 811 vouchers, by targeting the use of vouchers towards ELI households. Currently, a “lottery” or “list-based” method is used to assign vouchers. In addition, the Commission recommended the broader use of “performance based contracting,” which establishes program standards that need to be met in order for an organization to continue receiving the contract guiding the administration of that program.

At the NAEH conference, there was also broad discussion regarding the benefits of “performance based contracting.” Attendees heard first-hand accounts from communities such as Fort Worth, Texas; Columbus, Ohio; and Hayward, Calif. about how this tool has had positive impacts on their city’s efforts to reduce homelessness. The use of financial incentives, publicly recognizing positive providers, engaging under-performing providers in technical assistance and, when necessary, reallocating contracts have shown promise in these communities and others.

While there continues to be renewed optimism about the recovery of the overall housing market, the stark reality is that most cities are still reeling from the impacts of the housing market collapse. However, the emerging housing recovery continues to mask the daunting challenges facing millions of renters, low-income homeowners and the cities in which they live.

For local leaders to help encourage a more robust recovery in their communities, learning about and implementing innovative practices, such as reforming how vouchers are distributed and performance-based contracting in the face of stagnant or declining revenues, will be critical.

Cities Kick-Start Innovation

Context matters in rankings, whether it is for universities, sports teams or cities. Columbus, Ohio and Medellin, Columbia, are two cities that were recently singled out for recognition. In the case of Medellin the title bestowed was Innovative City of the Year by Citi Group, The Wall Street Journal and the Urban Land Institute. Columbus is the only U.S. city among the list of Most Intelligent Cities adjudicated by the Intelligent Communities Forum.

Although one can always argue over the selection process and the qualifications of the sponsors to properly judge the final selection, it’s hard to find fault with the innovative work being done in these cities that pushed them up to the top of these rankings.

Consider Columbus, Ohio, one of this nation’s “legacy cities” in the industrial heartland. In a review of the city’s accomplishments toward earning the Most Intelligent title, Robert Bell, founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, cites assets including Ohio State University, the Columbus Metropolitan Library and the innovation incubator TechColumbus as significant advances in smart technology application and education. The city is further lauded for its multi-sector partnerships, inclusion of citizens in visioning and transparency of process in decision making.

The astonishing transformation in Medellin bears some of the same hallmarks that define the experience in Columbus. However, Columbus never had to battle the horrendous crime problems that accompanied the drug cartel wars (1975-1995) nor the extremes of poverty that plague so many developing democracies. What gives this city its credibility as “innovative” is its leveraged public investment with private sector partners, a determination to nurture citizen inclusion (participatory budgeting being one example) through the use of social media tools, and real progress to improve the human and social capital of the city’s poorest residents.

To be sure, the story in Medellin is capturing so much attention because so many of the projects pursued are being replicated elsewhere, much in the way Curitiba, Brazil led the field in bus rapid transit. For example, Medellin invested in aerial skyways employing gondolas that link citizens living in poor mountainside villages to jobs in the valley below. A similar system was rolled out in Rio de Janeiro in July 2011. A skyway across the Thames in London, the Emirates Air Line, debuted for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Cities are hotbeds of innovation and city leaders love to share a good story. It is in the sharing of both success and failure that innovation spreads and achieves a long-term impact.

A Reminder that the Time for Local Community Investment is Now

This post was written by Carolyn Coleman, Director, Center for Federal Relations at the National League of Cities.

This is the fourth post in a series this week discussing different perspectives on the results of NLC’s 2013 Local Economic Conditions Survey.

At a time when our recent Local Economic Conditions survey report shows that cities are still struggling in significant ways and growth is not keeping pace at a level needed for a sustained recovery, our federal partners should be supporting investments in local communities, not entertaining proposals to harm them.

So far that has not been the case.

Over the last 18 months, the federal government has lurched from one fiscal cliff to the next. For example, on March 1, as a result of Congress’s failure to avert them, the $85 billion in mandatory across the board spending cuts known as “sequestration” went into effect for FY 2013.

Among other cuts, over the course of the year this will amount to a 7.8 percent cut in non-exempt defense spending and a 5 percent cut in non-defense discretionary spending, which will impact many programs including, among others, the Community Development Block Grant program, Section 8 housing assistance, public safety, education, job training, and water infrastructure.

Everyone agrees that these cuts will be harmful to the economy, to communities, and to individuals across the country. Then, on March 26, President Obama acted just in time to avoid a federal government shutdown the next day by signing a stop-gap spending measure.

FY14 Budget
With the FY 2013 process behind them, over the last several weeks, the focus in Washington has shifted to the budget process for FY 2014, which starts on October 1, 2013.  It began with the House and Senate passing budget resolutions several weeks ago.  While these resolutions are non-binding, they do provide a preview of the priorities for the leadership of the two chambers and their differences.

Then earlier this week, President Obama introduced his FY 2014 budget proposal. For cities, while there was good news, it isn’t necessarily outweighed by the bad.  For the last several months, NLC and city leaders across the country have been educating the White House as well as House and Senate members about the value of tax-exempt municipal bonds and the need to preserve this long-standing partnership between the federal government and local governments, which has been in effect since the federal income tax was first instituted in 1913. (See letters and resolutions.)

Municipal Bonds Under Attack
Tax exempt municipal bonds are the most important tool in the country for financing investments in schools, roads, water and sewer systems, airports, bridges, and other vital infrastructure.  According to a recent report issued by NLC, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) and the National Association of Counties (NACo), over the last decade alone, state and local governments financed more than $1.65 trillion of infrastructure investment through the tax exempt market.

Limiting the exemption or eliminating it would significantly increase the borrowing costs for our communities or mean fewer resources for these essential infrastructure systems. In NLC’s Local Economic Conditions survey, we ask city officials how they anticipate the impact of a federal limitation on the municipal bond tax exemption. Sixty-one percent report they would limit the number of projects undertaken; 54 percent report they would reduce the scope.

For these reasons, we were disappointed and frustrated when we learned that the President’s budget kept the door open on limiting the exemption by proposing a 28 percent cap on income tax deductions.  While the President’s budget did include new resources for infrastructure investments, like America Fast Forward bonds, a national infrastructure bank, and $50 billion in immediate infrastructure investment, these new tools are no substitute for the tax exempt municipal bond tool.

According to NLC-USCM-NACo report, if the proposed 28 percent cap had been in effect during the last decade, the borrowing costs to state and local governments would have increased by $173 billion and would have prevented many infrastructure projects from going forward.

It’s also important to note that the President’s budget is not the only one that keeps the door open to changes to the tax exemption in order to reduce the federal deficit or fund new programs.  Both the House and Senate budget resolutions also leave open the possibility of limiting the exemption for municipal bonds.

While we recognize that a balanced approach is necessary for the federal government to get its fiscal house in order, Washington should be supporting municipal bonds, not entertaining proposals to harm them or our communities.  That will be NLC’s message as the FY 2014 budget process moves forward.

Cities anticipate increased focus on jobs, revenues sources

This is the third post in a series this week discussing different perspectives on the results of NLC’s 2013 Local Economic Conditions Survey.

Last week’s findings from National League of Cities’ Local Economic Conditions (LEC) Survey indicated that local economies have improved over the last year, but cities are still struggling in pivotal areas – notably with a workforce skills gap and tepid improvements in the commercial property market.

This year’s Local Economic Conditions survey included a new series of questions asking city officials about the policy areas that they anticipate focusing on in 2013. Although these findings were not included in our research brief on the LEC survey, they are important to examine for what they reveal about local officials’ priorities. These findings suggest that city officials will continue to focus on core areas of local government that protect the welfare and safety of residents while increasing their focus on areas that create new jobs and revenue.

Focus on welfare of community and citizens will remain steady

At the end of the day, local governments are the on the ground government responsible for protecting citizens safety and welfare.  In core areas like public safety (56%), education (59%), and environmental sustainability (58%), city officials anticipate “no change” in focus in 2013.

Further, with city officials reporting that unemployment (66%), median income level (57%), demand for survival services (56%) and workforce skills (53%) are a major/moderate problem for their cities, the majority of city officials anticipate their focus on services to vulnerable populations will remain steady in 2013.  Specifically, the majority of city officials anticipate no change in their focus on affordable housing (60%), safety net services (68%) and workforce/job training (58%).

 Increased focus on areas of job growth, revenue sources, and creating quality places

While focus on services remains steady, city officials anticipate increasing their focus in policy areas that strive to create jobs, new revenue and build quality places.

Percent of City Officials Anticipating Change in Policy Focus

Despite the recent less-then-stellar press about economic attraction/recruitment, this is still the bread and butter of city government, with 75% of city officials reporting that they anticipate increasing their focus on business attraction and recruitment in 2013. This should not come as much of a surprise, as the majority of city officials report that commercial vacancies (65%) and unemployment (66%) are major/moderate problems for their cities. Attracting tourism dollars is also on the agenda for the majority of city officials, with 57% anticipating an increased focus on tourism and entertainment in 2013.

The results from this new series of questions in the LEC survey also point to a balanced economic development approach focused not only on business attraction, but also on helping new companies start and grow, as well as retaining those companies that are already located in a city. Sixty-four percent and 61 percent of city officials report they anticipate increasing their focus on business retention and small business/entrepreneurship support, respectively, in 2013.

Responses suggest that city officials will also focus on creating places where people and businesses want to be.  Seventy-three percent of city officials report that they will be increasing their focus on downtown/commercial redevelopment, 62 percent will be increasing their focus on infrastructure and 57 percent anticipate increasing their focus on community and neighborhood development.

Mirrors State of the City Addresses

These results mirror the themes that mayors across the county have been presenting in their 2013 State of the City Addresses. According to NLC’s annual blog series on the topic, city officials are laying out bold visions in the areas of economic development, infrastructure, public safety, and education, like Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s neighborhood revitalization program, entrepreneurship efforts in Salt Lake City, Utah, infrastructure improvements in Beaverton, Oregon and a renewed focus on quality K-12 education in Columbus, Ohio.

Learn more about NLC’s Local Economic Development Survey.

When it Comes to the Skills Gap, Perceptions Matter

This is the second post in a series this week discussing different perspectives on the results of NLC’s 2013 Local Economic Conditions Survey.

With the recent release of the March jobs numbers, we are quickly reminded that what may finally seem like recovery must be viewed with cautious optimism. Our first blog post in this series dug deeper into the realities of what appears to be a strong and growing real estate market, one in which residential property improvements have largely overshadowed lingering and detrimental challenges in the commercial property market.

This post examines city officials’ perceptions about the labor market as well as skills challenges that may be posing structural barriers to sustained local and national recovery.

Concerns Over Skills Gap

The changing nature and composition of the economy has highlighted the necessity of a local workforce with skills that are appropriately aligned and matched with employer demand.

Unfortunately, more than one in two city officials (53%) report that current local workforce skills are posing a problem for the economic health of their communities. Nearly nine in 10 city officials (88%) note that workforce alignment has not improved over the past year.

Percent of City Officials Reporting Change in Workforce Skills Match to Demand of Local Employers, source: Local Economic Conditions 2013

Perception vs. Reality

We know that a so-called “skills gap” is not the only driver of challenges in the labor market. A skills gap is often the perception, or face, of a much more complex and tangled web of trends relating to a shrinking labor force, long term unemployment, underemployment and divergent hiring patterns.

The facts are stark: the labor market is shrinking, the economy is not creating enough jobs, and those dropping out appear to be in the prime of their working years, ages 25-54. The longer this continues, the more likely this pool will become unemployed in the longer-term, with deterioration of skills, networks and trust in the market to provide opportunity for them.

As reported in the Atlantic, “We increasingly have a bifurcated labor market…the job market looks normal for people who have been out of work for less than 6 months, and horribly dysfunctional for people who have been out of work longer than that.”

In addition to a shrinking labor market and longer-term unemployment, we are also facing an under-employment problem.  A Wall Street Journal analysis of recent U.S. Labor Department data shows that “284,000 graduates—those with at least a bachelor’s degree—are working minimum-wage jobs in 2012, including 37,000 holders of advanced degrees. That’s down from a peak of 327,000 in 2010, but double the number in 2007 and up 70% from a decade earlier.”

This is a problem in and of itself, with increasing college debt burdens and decreasing wages, but more so, because many with higher skills are taking middle and lower skill jobs, crowding those at the low end of the skills ladder out of the job market.

This rings particularly true given that we are seeing less job creation at the higher-end of the skills spectrum.  Brookings recently released a study finding that employers are indeed hiring more readily across the U.S., but that this is driven by industries such as construction, hospitality and healthcare.

A middle-skills gap appears to be a reality, particularly in the industrial trades, which have received decreased attention in high schools over the years from parents and guidance counselors as viable career options.  But even in these sectors, claims of uncompetitive wages, undesirable locations and work shifts, and poor hiring practices and systems are also at play.

Perceptions Matter

So, at the end of the day, a skills gap is but one of a host of challenges undergirding potential structural issues in the labor and jobs markets. Regardless, local officials, apparently nearly 90 percent of them, have been confronted with the reality of businesses telling them that they cannot find qualified workers.  This threat of employers picking up and moving, or choosing to hire or locate elsewhere, means that businesses are not happy and are not or will not be job creators for the community.

Cities across the country, from Avondale, Ariz. to St. Paul, Minn., are exploring ways to be both responsive to their business community while also tackling the heart of these complex problems in order to open pathways to employment for their residents.

They are partnering with businesses, workforce systems, economic development organizations, educational institutions and other stakeholders to examine the depth and scope of labor market issues and to educate residents for available employment. They are also placing greater responsibility on the business community to provide training opportunities for potential and current employees and engage in more sensible hiring practices.

2013 Local Economic Conditions: What’s up with Commercial Property?

This is the first post in a series this week discussing different perspectives regarding the results of NLC’s 2013 Local Economic Conditions Survey.

NLC’s 2013 Local Economic Conditions (LEC) Survey, which was released last week, showed overall improvement in local economic benchmarks over the last year. But it also demonstrated that certain indicators are lagging behind, such as the commercial property market. With over half of city officials reporting that commercial property vacancies and values are still a problem in their communities, it’s evident that the effects of the Great Recession still linger.

Improvement in Property Tax Indicators

The sharp uptick in city officials reporting improved commercial property values and vacancies from 2010 to 2011 can be explained fairly simply: the economy – real estate market included – was bouncing back from rock bottom after the combination of fiscal stimulus and monetary easing measures were introduced and implemented at the federal level.  These measures helped to accelerate purchases of distressed assets that could be moved at attractive price points.

The results of the LEC survey show that local officials saw a leveling off of the commercial property market in 2012. While many analysts predict that the market will continue to improve in 2013, they are mostly in agreement that the recovery will be slow.

Commercial Real Estate Prices

Vacancies vs. Values

Commercial property vacancies was the only measure that had less city officials reporting an improvement over the last year, while the perception of commercial property values continued to improve. Although it was a very small decline (4%), it is worth noting why there may be a disconnect between values and vacancies.

Many of the factors that are driving values are related to the ability to finance commercial real estate deals and trading activity. As prices approached pre-crisis levels earlier this year, Bloomberg reported a “’renaissance’ in the issuance of commercial mortgage backed securities…particularly for lower-quality properties, because financing will be more available.” And the CoStar Group reported that “both the investment grade and general commercial segments were heavily traded as improving market fundamentals and attractive yields relative to other asset classes drove strong investor interest in commercial real estate.”

Meanwhile, vacancies continue to persist. In the fourth quarter of 2012, Reuters reported that the office vacancy rate stood at 17.1 percent, “far higher than the 12.6 percent recorded at the end of 2007.” The article also highlights the fact that without a strong recovery in labor markets and employment, office vacancies will continue to stagnate. The National Association of Realtors notes 10.8 percent vacancy rate in retail markets in the fourth quarter of 2012 and a 10.1 percent vacancy rate in industrial markets. NAR expects marginal improvement in these metrics over the course of 2013.

Looking Ahead

Based on the results of the LEC survey, the commercial property market should continue its slow recovery through 2013, though this is far from certain. According to local officials, unemployment (52%), business permits (49%), and retail (48%) are all improving in their communities, which should breathe new life into the market.

A robust recovery in commercial property is crucial, as cities depend on a healthy property market and business environment to provide tax revenues for essential services. 

The VA Claims Backlog: Yes, It’s An Outrage, But What Can Cities Do? Plenty.

In the past several weeks, there have been an increasing number of reports by the federal government (here and here) and in the media (see other stories here and here) about the travesty our veterans are facing as they wait–at times for years–to receive the benefits to which they are entitled.

There is no doubt this is a national disgrace. Combined with the fact that in 2012 there were an estimated 62,619 homeless veterans in our country, these are serious contradictions of our national priorities.

The Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Eric Shinsecki has recently committed to reducing the egregious backlog of VA benefit claims to 125 days or less by 2015. But for the veteran with a complex benefit claim today, who may be currently unemployed or underemployed, with an increasingly precarious housing situation that threatens to put his or her family’s stability at risk, the promise that the VA will get to their claim sometime in the next approximately 650 days is hardly reassuring.

While it is easy to point the blame at federal “incompetence” and/or lack of planning, these assertions, regardless of their merit, do nothing to address the current challenges of those who have served their country. It is of course imperative that we hold our federal delegations and the administration accountable for their actions (or lack thereof) to address the current state of affairs, but the question still remains, what can be done for our veterans now?

As the frequently cited quote from former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill goes, “All politics is local.” In this situation, the solutions to many of the challenges facing our veterans must also be local.

More and more communities are stepping forward to improve the coordination of services for our veterans, convening local stakeholders to identify pragmatic steps that can be taken and tapping into local assets as effectively as possible.

In Phoenix, Ariz., stakeholders from the VA, non-profits, state and local government agencies have come together to coordinate their intake processes in a manner that allows them to quickly identify members of the homeless population who are most likely to die on the streets, and in the process consume the most public resources. In addition, the Arizona Department of Housing has included a set-aside for the homeless, some of whom are veterans, in the distribution of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits.

In Tacoma, Wash., leaders from the City, Pierce County, the VA and non-profits are continuing their work to implement and improve a coordinated intake process that has been in place for the past few years. Given this community’s proximity to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, one of our most active military installations, the commitment and proactive leadership shown by local officials in improving services and opportunities for veterans has been, and will continue to be, instrumental in achieving successful, coordinated outcomes.

Also in Washington State, the City of Auburn’s Mayor and City Council have taken aggressive steps to situate their community as an attractive place for returning veterans to come and build a life. Through partnerships with the local community college, area employers, local offices of the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Veterans Affairs, Auburn has recognized their need to take action to not only help returning veterans, but also to tap in to the unique economic development opportunities these men and women present to the city and the region.

Whenever there is a problem, there is never a lack of people willing to yell and throw accusations about how awful something is. But the true testament to measure how much someone actually cares about an issue is how they acknowledge a problem, think carefully about what aspects of the problem they can control, and then act. Officials in Phoenix, Tacoma, Auburn, and other cities are doing just this.

Join them today and tell us what you and your city are doing to ensure our veterans receive the recognition of their service and sacrifices that they deserve.