U.S. DOT Offers Webinars on New Pedestrian/Bicycle Path Funding Programs Available to Cities

Congress may be beginning the debate on the next transportation bill with a series of hearings, but the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) is still working to implement all the changes in the surface transportation bill passed last year known as MAP-21 (Moving Ahead of Progress in the 21st Century).    You can find resources and updates on the DOT MAP-21 website at http://www.dot.gov/map21.

One of the big changes impacting local governments from MAP-21 is the new Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), which combined the very popular Safe Routes to School, Recreational Trails and Transportation Enhancements programs and greatly reduced the available funding.    The new program sub-allocates 50 percent of a state’s funding for the program to areas based on population, with the remaining 50 percent available for use in any area of the state.  States may choose to transfer up to 50 percent of their funds to other transportation programs and may choose not to sub-allocate at all.   DOT will hold a series of webinars on TAP as follows:

For questions about the TAP webinar series, please contact Christopher Douwes at Christopher.douwes@dot.gov or 202-366-5013, or Shana Baker at shana.baker@dot.gov or 202-366-4649.

Learn about the program and how to take advantage of this opportunity, and share your stories  with NLC by contacting Leslie Wollack at Wollack@nlc.org.

Should Cities Move their Retirees Off of Their Existing Health Care Plans?

Should cities or towns move their retirees off of their existing health care plans and into the Affordable Care Act’s individual marketplace or exchange as a way to bring their fiscal house into order? If you read the New York Times or watch Fox News you might think that cities and towns across America are thinking about this. But in reality they are not. The decision on how to treat one’s retirees is a very complicated and difficult decision.

At first glance, it may seem to make sense for a city or town to move their retirees into the state marketplace or exchange. This would reduce substantially what the city or town has to pay out each year in health insurance related costs, or so you would assume. However, there are many other questions that a city or town would have to answer before the benefits of such a move could be realized.

These questions include:

  • What impact would a decision to reduce the numbers of persons in the pool have on the cost of individual insurance premiums? If retired firefighters or retired police officers are taken out of their respective pools, would the overall cost of insurance increase for those on the job, because those on the job are at greater risk of sustaining a life threatening injury than those off the job?
  • What contractual or collective bargaining agreements does the city or town have with its workers? Would the local government have to set up a Health Savings Account for each retiree so that each retiree had the resources to pay for their own insurance? If so would this actually save the local government money?
  • How would the decision to alter employee expectations impact the demands of workers currently employed? Would a decision to move retirees to the exchange open collective bargaining agreements to changes that might ultimately not save the city or town any money?
  • How would changes to the health care plan impact the plan’s “grandfathered” status, if at all? Once employers start to make changes to what are otherwise grandfathered plans under the ACA, how would changes impact the plan, and would those changes offset any cost savings realized from moving retirees into the exchanges?
  • What political and social costs might be incurred by the decision to move retirees off the city’s health care plan and into the exchange? Will the differences between what is available through the city and town, and what may be available through the exchanges be worth the political and social costs that might occur, including higher co-pays for retirees and larger contributions to the cost of their health care (and therefore a diminishing of the value of their retirement)?

Ultimately, these and other factors will have to be taken into consideration as city and town leaders make important decisions about the health care coverage available to their retirees, especially those police and fire retirees who are not yet eligible for Medicare. It is too early to draw any firm conclusions, and experiments like those proposed in Detroit, Chicago, and Stockton, CA will play a significant role in determining just how far cities and towns are willing to go when it comes to changing their retirees’ benefits.

Learn to Provide Your Residents with Help Enrolling in the Affordable Care Act

This blog post was written by Neil Bomberg, Program Director, Federal Advocacy at the National League of Cities.

You may not know this, but every city and town in America can become what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is calling a Certified Application Counselor (CAC) organization.  In simple terms, this means that staff of your city or town can be trained and certified to help residents apply for and receive benefits under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

To apply to become a CAC, click here.

If you want to learn more about becoming a CAC before signing up, including how to apply, training requirements, marketplace eligibility, enrollment requirements, Medicaid expansion and the streamlined application process, you can participate in one or more webinars scheduled for July 31 through August 7, 2013.  Choose the session that works best for you and click on the webinar link below to register:

Visit HealthCare.gov to learn more about the Health Insurance Marketplace.  Open enrollment begins on October 1, 2013 for coverage starting as early as January 2014.

If you have questions or concerns about becoming a CAC or about the webinars, contact HHSIEA@hhs.gov.

Mayor Richard M. Daley to State Municipal League Staff Workshop: Cities Lead

At NLC’s State Municipal League staff workshop in Chicago last week, former mayor of Chicago Richard M. Daley spoke to attendees about the importance of public service and the need for cities to come together to affect change.

Invoking the theme of NLC’s upcoming Congress of Cities, “Cities Lead,” Mayor Daley stressed that cities are at the forefront of issues such as sustainability, alternative energy, and innovative use of public-private partnerships. For example, Chicago’s renowned Millennium Park was developed as a result of a public-private partnership and now draws an estimated 4 million tourists a year to the area.

Daley served as mayor of the City of Chicago for 22 years, stepping down only two years ago. He described his favorite part of the job as getting out into the community on Saturdays, because it provided an opportunity to see citizens working on behalf of their communities, organizing neighborhood clean-ups, serving as little league coaches and volunteering in numerous other ways to improve their neighborhoods. Mayor Daley noted that Saturdays provided him an invaluable perspective on what was important to Chicago residents.

This perspective informed his policy decisions and motivated him to build coalitions between various constituent groups since many of their needs and concerns, such as public safety and education, were the same.

At the end of the day, change has to come from local government. As Mayor Daley aptly remarked, “local government is the future.” As the nation becomes more urbanized, it is cities, large and small alike, that must push for the change they want to see at the state and federal levels. NLC works with its members and 49 state municipal leagues in a “funnel-up” partnership to shape policy decisions that will improve quality of life for all city residents.

Lessons Learned from Richmond, Virginia to Improve the Lives of Veterans Everywhere

In September 2012, in conjunction with the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity, NLC sponsored an event that highlighted the work that the City of Richmond, VA is doing to alleviate poverty. As part of the “Cities Promote Opportunity” series, Mayor Dwight C. Jones, Richmond, spoke about the importance of city leadership and service coordination in helping the city move toward their goal of reducing poverty.

This post was written by Mayor Dwight Jones and was originally posted by the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity

The need for city leadership and service coordination is central to ensuring our cities provide veterans with the welcome home they deserve. Cities of all sizes are showing the impact that local leadership can have. From larger cities such as Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and the District of Columbia, to more moderately sized cities such as Eugene, OR and Colorado Springs, CO and even smaller communities such as Glastonbury, CT and Port Angeles, WA, local leadership consistently makes the difference. To learn more about what you can do to lead efforts in your city to improve service coordination and help welcome home veterans, contact Elisha Harig-Blaine, Senior Associate, Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at harig-blaine@nlc.org.

Restructuring Municipal Budgets to Fight Poverty

In Richmond, Virginia, we are witnessing a troubling trend. Over one in four residents live in poverty, and many more live just above the poverty line or are at risk of falling into poverty. In response to this community crisis, I appointed an Anti-Poverty Commission to review this problem and offer recommendations.

What they came back with was inspiring. We found that we can make a measurable impact if we focus our anti-poverty strategies on upgrading our workers’ skills, expanding employment opportunities, boosting academic achievement, and enhancing public housing. And we know that we can afford many of these initiatives, even in a time of fiscal stress, by leveraging outside funding, improving coordination, refocusing existing programs, and finding savings that reduce our residents’ cost of living.

The Commission made clear that we can significantly reduce poverty—for example, permanently moving 5,000 adults into full-time employment could cut Richmond’s poverty rate by over 20 percent. To achieve tangible progress, the Commission established five major recommendations:

• Target workforce development strategies toward low-skilled and long-term unemployed and underemployed residents, which can be integrated with economic development strategies.

• Recruit or develop one or more major employers capable of creating hundreds of jobs accessible to underemployed Richmond residents.

• Create a regional transit system to make thousands more jobs accessible to metropolitan Richmond residents through effective public transportation that links the regional economy together.

• Develop an effective educational pipeline that prepares Richmond Public Schools graduates for either college or the workforce.

• Redevelop much of the city’s public housing stock without involuntarily displacing residents, with the aim of improving the physical and social environment of public housing residents.

These recommendations will require substantial investments to implement, but the key is to do more with what we have. We believe that, if we can establish a focused strategy to guide the investment of these dollars, we can maximize the use of existing local, state, and federal funds to fight poverty more effectively.

With this approach, we prepared our budget with an eye toward the things we could and would do to help mitigate poverty in our city, while also upholding our central responsibility to provide core municipal services.

One area ripe for reform was the Richmond water system. We are proposing to cut the base rate for these services to make them more affordable for our residents. We are also migrating to an approach that will help with our water conservation efforts. Additionally, we are establishing a new assistance program that will help pay water and wastewater bills for qualified low-income households.

In transportation, we are working to develop a pilot program for van pooling, which will help transport our residents to jobs and address issues of inadequate transportation. Other efforts include augmenting funding to support health resource centers in our public housing complexes, as well as continuing on our trajectory to transform public housing models and deconcentrate poverty.

While we are doing what we can within the confines of our budget, the Anti-Poverty Commission rightly noted that the city government has limited resources and capacity. This means that collaboration will be essential in our fight against poverty.

One example of this kind of collaboration is our new Adolescent Transition Initiative. Working together
with our school system and other community agencies, our goal is to launch a major community effort to strengthen support systems and opportunities for children ages 11-15 who are making the critical transition from middle childhood to the high school years. We want to reduce the number of children who are falling behind socially and academically. This initiative will connect teenagers to real-world experiences through extracurricular activities and mentoring relationships with trusted adults.

Another example is in the area of workforce development. We are preparing to fund a new pilot project through our existing Workforce Pipeline program. Through this pilot, we will combine the efforts of our workforce development program and the state Virginia Initiative for Employment, not Welfare (VIEW) job program, which serves Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients. Our new, combined program will provide training for job readiness, focusing on jobs with sufficiently high wages to lift people out of poverty and promote economic stability.

These initiatives are just a precursor to programs we hope to invest in more heavily going forward. We intend to stay focused and to be held accountable to our citizens through the creation of a permanent Citizens Advisory Commission on Poverty Policy. By working together and being smart about finances, we can begin to move our city towards the path of economic prosperity.

Are Cities Helping Turn the Tide in America’s Fight Against Childhood Obesity?

The good news:  After increasing for more than three decades, we are beginning to see childhood obesity rates fall in some states and communities.  The bad news is that these improvements are not reaching every city, town, and county.

Earlier this month, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) and the White House celebrated important milestones in their efforts to promote children’s health.  On July 9, RWJF held an event to showcase signs of improvement in four states (California, Mississippi, New Mexico, and West Virginia) and five communities (Anchorage, Alaska; Granville and Vance Counties, N.C.; Kearney, Neb.; New York City; and Philadelphia) where childhood obesity rates have declined.  The following day, First Lady Michelle Obama joined the National League of Cities to celebrate the achievements made by local elected officials in 330 communities, which represent more than 56 million Americans, that are participating in Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties.

To date, NLC has awarded 1,019 bronze, silver and gold “medals” to these local elected officials for achieving benchmarks related to the five LMCTC goals. Accomplishments include:

  • 155 communities with an active, interagency collaboration on early care and education programs to help young children develop healthy habits at an early age;
  • 991 city or county-owned or operated food-serving venues that are displaying MyPlate to provide a visual reminder of the healthy choices to consider when eating meals;
  • 69 city- or county-owned or operated food-serving venues that are adopting healthy food service guidelines aligned with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans;
  • 898,266 students who are participating in the School Breakfast Program and 1,511,717 students who are participating in the National School Lunch Program;
  • 161 communities that are creating or revitalizing park and recreation facilities; and
  • 137 communities that are making it easier to walk and bike to school or work.

We do not know which efforts have made the greatest contributions to reducing childhood obesity.  But we do know how this obesity epidemic originated: over time, children have had fewer opportunities for physical activity and less healthy food in their diets.  Making progress on obesity requires addressing the environmental factors behind these trends.  Cities, towns and counties are playing unique leadership roles in building communities that promote healthy living.

For instance, the City of Missoula, Mont., and Missoula County adopted healthier standards for all vending and concession contracts in public places.  Students also have more opportunities to be physically active thanks to a joint use agreement between the school district and parks department that opens the school gym for free programming for fourth and fifth graders.  The City of Newton, Mass., added a bike lane and sidewalk improvement program to promote more walking and cycling.  In Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., the city is using a health-in-all-policies approach, passing a top-ranked Complete Streets policy, changing zoning policies to promote community gardens, and requiring 75 percent of products sold at farmers’ markets to meet healthy food guidelines.

Yet, there is much work ahead.  According to a recent study by the University of Washington, among 34 developed countries, the U.S. ranks 27th in disease burden risk from dietary factors such as diets low in fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.  In addition, the U.S. remains one of the most obese countries in the world. The study also showed that where you live is a key predictor of health.  While residents of San Francisco, Fairfax County, Va., and Gunnison, Colo., have some of the highest life expectancies in the world, individuals in other U.S. counties experience life expectancies that are lower than or similar to levels seen in North African and Southeast Asian countries.

In her remarks on July 10, the First Lady asked local elected leaders in the audience to “double down” on their efforts and “push a little bit harder” on the actions they are taking.  She challenged city and county leaders to bring more people, such as faith leaders, business owners, teachers and parents, to the table and to encourage local elected officials in other communities to join Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties.  A list of participating communities is available here.

All of us have a stake in ensuring that our children grow up to become healthy and productive adults.  Whether the U.S. makes continued progress in the fight against childhood obesity or slips further behind other nations on health indicators may hinge on the burgeoning city and county efforts to create healthier communities.

To sign up or learn more about Let’s Move! Cities, Towns and Counties, including seeing the progress made by the more than 330 municipalities and counties participating, please visit www.HealthyCommunitiesHealthyFuture.org

Dubuque Gets Engaged

This post was written by Candace Eudaley, Assistant Executive Director at the East Central Intergovernmental Association (ECIA) in Dubuque, Iowa. ECIA is a council of governments serving Cedar, Clinton, Delaware, Dubuque and Jackson Counties in eastern Iowa.  This post was written in conjunction with a recently released report from NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute: “Dubuque Gets Engaged: The Critical Role of Partnerships in Moving Sustainability Forward.”

 The double meaning of the title of this blog post and accompanying report seems to address the most valuable lesson learned by Dubuque and its partners in the Sustainable Dubuque initiative: we’re all in this together, for better or worse and in good times and bad. As with any relationship, there are successes, trade-offs and setbacks, but the commitment of the partners and community is what keeps the momentum going.   

If you walk into a Dubuque coffee shop on any given day, you’ll likely overhear a conversation at one table about how climate change is a hoax and the UN is trying to take over the world with its ominous Agenda 21; at the exact same venue a few tables away, you might hear another conversation about melting ice caps and the need for immediate action by reducing individual carbon footprints and overhauling transportation infrastructure.

While people may make assumptions about my personal beliefs, to do my job well I maintain that my opinion on the subject is irrelevant and rarely discuss it. The role of local government and council of governments staff is not to blast an opinion and demand that citizens jump in line behind policies. Our role is to work with organizations in the community dedicated to the various facets of sustainability, build consensus and help develop policies that help to achieve the end goal of a viable, livable, equitable and thriving community. In short, we are here to listen to both coffee shop conversations and craft incentives or disincentives for decision-making that both groups can understand and get behind. Often this involves use of the free market and adding the hidden costs of decisions into the equation. Dubuque continues to work to strike this balance; however, it’s important to remember that while progress is slow, we’re still moving forward.

 Being part of a regional organization provides a unique opportunity to see the variation in opinions toward and approaches to sustainability in different communities across a relatively small geographic area. Within each community, there are champions for the cause of sustainability, but motivations vary. The beauty of the Sustainable Dubuque model is that it is both broad and specific enough to allow for a variety of organizations with very different missions to converge. In general, communities of interest tend to form based around specific issues. Leveraging their energy and intensity can be difficult without a structure in place to first understand their motivations and goals, and then connect them with local, state and national resources to help accomplish those goals. The role of a regional partner, in this case the council of governments, is to assist member communities with the upfront planning and gathering of stakeholder input as well as serving as a clearinghouse for best practices and state and federal resources.

 Dubuque’s residents, businesses and organizations are engaged in Sustainable Dubuque and with each other, but each on their own terms. While there are always challenges to making lasting change, meeting people where they are has been a mantra for Sustainable Dubuque and a key to its success in connecting with a broad cross section of the community. Understanding the motivations of individuals and groups in the community is essential to creating the long-term commitment and shared responsibility necessary for a successful sustainability initiative.

Supreme Court Decides Takings Case

In the Supreme Court’s last week in session at the end of June the major opinions of the term are issued.  This year was no exception.  The Court issued rulings in two same-sex marriage cases, struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, and issued a ruling regarding affirmative action in universities.  While it largely went unnoticed, the Supreme Court also issued its third ruling of the term involving takings.  The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case which NLC signed onto.

In Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District the Supreme Court held 5-4 that there must be a “nexus” and “rough proportionality” between the government’s conditions for issuing a land-use permit and the effects of the proposed development even when the government denies the permit and even when the demand is for money.

In a New York Times Op-Ed SLLC brief writer John Echeverria writes that this case “creates a perverse incentive for municipal governments to reject applications from developers rather than attempt to negotiate project designs that might advance both public and private goals — and it makes it hard for communities to get property owners to pay to mitigate any environmental damage they may cause.”

Mr. Koontz sought permits to develop a portion of wetlands that he owned.  St. Johns River Water Management District told Koontz he could proceed with the development if he would reduce its impact or, alternatively, pay for improvements on District-owned property several miles away.  Koontz refused, was denied a permit, and sued, claiming his property was taken without just compensation.

In two previous Supreme Court cases, Nollan and Dolan, the Court held that the government may condition approval of a permit on the dedication of property to the public as long as there is a “nexus” and “rough proportionality” between the property demanded and the social cost of the applicant’s proposal.  The Florida Supreme Court did not apply Nollan and Dolan for two reasons.  First, the District had denied the application because Koontz refused to make a concession rather than issuing the permit subject to conditions, and so had not “taken” anything.  Second, the District requested money instead of an interest in land.

The Supreme Court reversed the Florida Supreme Court and applied Nollan and Dolan to both permit denials and demands for money.  All nine Justices agreed that Nollan and Dolan should apply whether or not the permit is ultimately issued.   According to the Court, Nollan and Dolan reflect the reality that the government may abuse the permitting process to coerce people into giving up land by denying a permit worth far more than the property the government wants to take.  At the same time, land uses can impose social costs that land dedications can offset.  Five Justices agreed that Nollan and Dolan should apply to monetary conditions to avoid the government demanding “extortionate” amounts of money in exchange for a permit.  The dissenting Justices were sympathetic to the argument in the SLLC’s amicus brief that there is no principled way to distinguish between demands for money in the land use context and taxes.

Strategies for Transforming the “Rust Belt”

Many cities, especially the old manufacturing centers hardest hit by economic transformation and demographic shifts, are developing and implementing strategies to attract new residents and new investment. Options that have been or are being deployed to once again grow these cities include targeting immigrants and knowledge workers (“creative class”) as well as place-based initiatives focusing on downtowns and neighborhoods or on amenities like the arts, open space and transit. Leveraging the capacity of so-called anchor institutions – partners including foundations, universities and health centers – continues to be an important part of these efforts.

Economist Jeremy Nowak, who also is the Chair at the Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia, argues that there are several trends that should help older “legacy cities” grow. Factors he and others view as significant include:

• Suburban and exurban empty nesters seeking urbanized spaces with amenities;
• Adults in their 20’s starting to form new households, albeit often households of one;
• Cities as critical gateways for new immigrants;
• The value of academic and health centers and other “growth nodes” found mostly in cities;
• Knowledge workers and those connected to the arts and to cultural institutions arts and culture congregate in cities;
• Societal trends in support of sustainability, walkability, dense social networks and place making are aligned with the values of the urban environment.

Even a casual observer of cities will agree that challenges remain. Research by NLC and other institutions acknowledge that cities must work through issues of poverty, crumbling infrastructure, low quality schools and general conditions of blight as well as perceptions about the ineffectiveness of government institutions in general. Most importantly, says Jeremy Nowak, “a city must come to terms with the cost of public benefits and the actual worth of those goods or services.”

In order to attract middle class families, a city must provide amenities that have broad public value – great public spaces, transportation systems that connect to jobs, residences and recreation opportunities, places that are safe and clean, and services that are fairly priced. City leaders also must embrace the shared governance and management models (partnerships with CDC’s, neighborhood associations, nonprofits and private sector firms) that offer innovations in delivering public goods and services toward the goal of achieving prosperity for all.

Practical Examples

Baltimore’s Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake seeks to grow the city’s population by 10,000 in 10 years. Efforts include the Vacants to Value program, which is rehabilitating vacant housing and offering home buyer incentives, demolishing 4,000 blighted structures, and leaving some land vacant as green space, urban agriculture plots or adjunct yards for existing homes. The mayor wants to cut city property taxes by 20% (reducing the cost of government in the process) and invest in core infrastructure including mobility strategies. A partnership with the state will invest $1.1 billion in new school construction (10-15 buildings) and rehabilitation of others.

There is useful data to help the city target resources. Research from the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance discovered that 35% of neighborhoods in the city (19 of 55) experienced some recent growth. Historic preservation tax credits were an especially critical incentive bringing older houses into prime condition for habitation. Neighborhoods that grew were accessible to roads and transit networks allowing residents to get to jobs, shopping and recreation easier and faster. By contrast, little growth occurred where there is blight and vacant properties. Even where there is good access to mobility networks, neighborhoods with vacant properties are not growing.

In the Idora neighborhood of Youngstown, Ohio, keys to future growth were upgrading the image of neighborhoods, strengthening the real estate market, and engaging large numbers of residents in the renewal process. The goal was to rebuild confidence so that property owners again would be willing to invest both dollars and time in owning and managing a quality home and community. The city’s Lots of Green program acknowledged the need to manage empty space in neighborhoods and encouraged the active role for residents.

Geneva, New York undertook image building initiatives to first create and then strategically market a dozen unique neighborhoods. Working through the city’s Office of Neighborhood Initiatives and in partnership with volunteers from the Geneva Neighborhood Resource Center, residents are engaged in a process of setting standards they expect from their blocks and houses.

Some revitalization tasks are symbolic like creating a neighborhood mural or new place-centric signage. Other tasks strengthen the real estate market through rehabilitation and sale of formerly vacant houses, aggressive promotions of neighborhoods with the help of real estate agents, and targeted first-time homebuyer incentives.

Other, more tangible efforts, such as strengthening grass roots community associations that engage in problem identification, assessment and solution, often depend on support from city government. That support may take various forms such as advocate, facilitator and champion. I believe that an essential role for city government is to help make recoveries possible by using grants, special lien programs, and clean-up assistance to support confidence-building efforts implemented by residents in concerts with local nonprofits or other community-based institutions. Through such actions, cities create an enabling environment for actions by community stakeholders.

Future Thinking

The analysis presented here was gathered during a forum that brought together thought leaders from the cities of Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia. These leaders were convened by the Funders Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities and four of the Federal Reserve Banks, with NLC as a supporting partner. Three more such gatherings will be organized during the balance of 2013 and into 2014. In our role of knowledge partner, NLC will contribute to these cross-city discussions but also facilitate the dissemination of knowledge beyond the four target cities.