State of the Cities 2013: Cities Lead. No Questions Asked.

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These days there always seems to be some sort of crisis on Capitol Hill.  The debt ceiling, sequestration, and the “fiscal cliff” are all part of the national vocabulary now.  As citizens of the United States, we are often frustrated when our hopes and visions for the country are sidelined by partisan bickering and gridlock in Congress. This political polarization has real life consequences for people, at both the national and local level.  Sure, we may get frustrated enough to call a staff member in our Congressperson’s office or write a letter to give them our two cents, but by and large we let them play their games.

The difference between members of Congress and members of the City Council however, is that Congress isn’t always held accountable for their decisions in the same way that local leaders are.  If you want to know why your mayor increased the local sales tax, you catch him in the produce section of the grocery store.  You can ask your councilmember why she didn’t support the new park in your neighborhood when you run into her at the parent-teacher conference.  At the end of the day, local leaders just don’t have the option of hiding behind party lines in their Washington offices.  And that’s just the way they like it.

Mayor Nancy Chaney, of Moscow, Idaho, actively encouraged her constituents to get involved.  “It’s up to each of you to judge how we’re doing, to offer constructive criticism (and when warranted, praise), or to become more directly involved. Speak up. Run for office. Volunteer. Donate to programs that make meaningful differences” she said.  In fact, this sentiment was expressed by mayors across the country—that it’s the job of every citizen, in partnerships with their mayors and councilmembers, to build a stronger community.

Necessity Breeds Innovation

In each of our State of the Cities posts last week, we wrote about the innovative ideas being implemented by city leaders to create prosperous neighborhoods and communities.  It’s important to note that these innovations aren’t happening just because they look good on paper or play well in a sound bite. They are happening because there is a real need to think creatively about how to address pressing issues with limited resources, a need that, by and large, can only be filled at the local level.  For example, Valparaiso, Ind. Mayor Jon Costas explained that his city “saved $50K converting an old street sweeper into a snow plow.”  Is that cool? Absolutely.  But that’s also a municipal employee who gets to keep their job, or a person who was able to get to work on time because their road was plowed.

When the city of Eau Claire, Wis. partnered with the private sector and received a grant to lay 200 miles of fiber optic cable and create wireless hot spots, everyone got more bars on their iPhone.  It also gave the city a competitive development advantage in bringing more jobs to the community– jobs that many community residents may need in order to make their next mortgage payment.

In her address, Mayor Stephanie A. Miner of Syracuse, N.Y. spoke of the collaboration between city staff, community groups, local public and private sector institutions and dozens of volunteer experts that came together to complete the City of Syracuse Comprehensive Plan: 2040.  She said that the detailed plan “stands as a new long-term policy roadmap for us to continue to be a leading 21st century city”.  It’s that kind of city-wide vision, collaboration and forethought that continue to make cities attractive to a diverse mix of residents.

Bottom line, cities have to do more with less. Where the federal government is able to carry a debt, most cities across the country legally are not allowed to do so.  They have to find savings and innovations wherever they can.  And they aren’t happy with just getting by; they want to thrive, not survive.  We’re just lucky that our local leaders are so creative.

The Stakes are Too High

Throughout our State of the Cities 2013 series, we’ve tried to reflect on all of the great work that is happening at the local level across the country.  We noted that many of the accomplishments that mayors emphasized in their Addresses fell into five broad themes: economic development, public safety, education, infrastructure, and fiscal management.  Strong communities are only strong when all of these areas are working collaboratively together.

The National League of Cities recognizes the importance of the work that is happening in communities on a daily basis.  This is the third year we have analyzed State of the City addresses from across the country, and we are continually amazed at the vision and dedication of local leaders to improve their cities.  Although mayors certainly acknowledge the many challenges they face, we have yet to find a city leader who says, “it’s just too hard” or “there’s nothing we can do”.  These communities are their homes, where their friends and families work and play.  As Charlotte, N.C. Mayor Anthony Foxx said:

As your mayor, I serve the most diverse citizenry in our history – Republicans, Independents and Democrats, the young and old, Hispanics and Asians, blacks and whites, the rich, poor and middle-class, straight and gay, people from every walk of life you can imagine.  My charge – our charge as a Charlotte City Council – is to ensure that every man, woman and child has a chance to succeed, to fulfill what their talents and abilities can lead them to accomplish.

Unlike the decisions of their Congressional colleagues, the decisions of  local leaders often hit home much more quickly and decisively.  When the stakes are that high, cities lead– no questions asked.

We know that city leaders are continually pushing the envelope to find innovative solutions to meet the needs of their citizens, and that the State of the City Address is just one place to highlight successes and address how challenges were overcome.  The National League of Cities is always looking for inspiring city projects, initiatives and stories to profile.  Share your successes in the comments section, email them to mcgahan@nlc.org and use the #CitiesLead hashtag on Twitter to keep the conversation going.