Can’t Leave Now

The following post was written by Jim Brooks – Program Director at the National League of Cities.


For the makers of the film DETROPIA, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the first priority is to contextualize a set of problems and move an audience toward understanding. Furthermore, their hope is to make the complex challenges of globalization, race relations, urban decay and the disconnections between citizens and government more approachable.


It’s a big task for any film. But, if the post-screening discussion at the Silver Docs film festival is any indication, the creators have achieved this first goal. The film informs, engages, provokes, challenges and inspires.


The focus is Detroit but the images and experiences have played out and are playing out in any number of urban centers around the country. The stories portrayed have broad applicability.


People ask if the film is an overture for or a eulogy to Detroit. I choose to think of the film as a requiem – an acknowledgement of what has been lost and a reminder of the durability of the spirit that may come forth again. Indeed, cities experience rebirth with startling regularity. It may take a generation of transformation, but cities have proven to be resilient. New York, Chattanooga and Pittsburgh are among the good examples of revitalization.


The film for all its grit and desolation gives the viewer cause for hope and optimism. The influx of young artists and knowledge economy workers is an established fact. Philanthropies and entrepreneurs have literally poured millions into Detroit seeking to catalyze change and jump start entrepreneurship. Even the big three U.S. auto makers are returning to profitability after the federal bailout.


But what really matters is the wit, faith and a clear-eyed judgment of the film’s leading personalities. Amidst the turmoil and poverty and helplessness, Crystal, Tommy and George leave me optimistic. Crystal sums it up best in her whisper of a comment, “Can’t leave now,” she says. “Can’t *****ing leave now.”


They are the civic voice in Detroit that is demanding a say both in the assessment of the city’s problems and in the crafting of solutions. They represent that undefinable aspect of humanity in cities who have adopted Winston Churchill as their patron saint.  His words are their motto, “never flinch, never weary, never despair.”

NLC Supports Senator Harkin’s Rebuild America Act

The following statement on Senator Harkin’s Rebuild America Act is from Donald J. Borut, Executive Director of the National League of Cities.

“The National League of Cities thanks Senator Harkin for introducing “The Rebuild America Act.” Since the beginning of the Great Recession, America’s cities and towns have asked the federal government to invest in a 21st Century economy by supporting infrastructure repair, modernizing our schools; supporting the hiring of teachers, first responders and other critical local government employees; and financing job training programs that will give Americans the skills needed for success in the new economy. Sen. Harkin’s bill provides this much-needed support, and would be paid for without raising the budget deficit. We hope that Congress will take the necessary steps in the next few months to advance this proposal and send help to where it is most needed: The Main Streets of America’s hometowns.”

The National League of Cities is dedicated to helping city leaders build better communities. NLC is a resource and advocate for 19,000 cities, towns and villages, representing more than 218 million Americans.

The State of the Cities in 2012

This is the first in a seven-part series about mayors’ 2012 State of the City speeches.  The following post is written by Lara Malakoff in NLC’s Center for Research and Innovation.

Cities are finding themselves at a cross-roads.  We know this from an analysis of State of the City addresses given by mayors and city managers as they kicked off 2012.

The outlook of city leaders at this juncture ranges from cautiously optimistic to overwhelmingly positive, but they are all looking forward and embracing change.  Obvious fiscal constraints and other well-documented challenges at the local level have created room for innovation (For more about innovation, see a recent post by Chris Hoene). In his State of the City speech, Mayor Greg Hines of Rogers, Ark., said, “We are proud of where we started as well as where we are now; however, we cannot afford to simply relish in our current standing.  We must continue the quest to do better, reach higher, dream bigger and work harder.”

They’re not expecting the road ahead to be without challenges.  Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, of Tucson, Ariz., wisely titled his first State of the City speech, “Making Tucson Work.”  In it, he described the work ahead: “We’re beginning the slow climb out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.  As our economy recovers, it will be tempting to go back to how we’ve done things in the past.  It is imperative that we not fall into that trap.”

This is NLC’s third annual analysis of State of the City addresses.  NLC staff from the Center for Research & Innovation, the Institute for Youth, Education & Families, and the Center for Federal Relations analyzed speeches given by mayors and city managers from 30 cities—cities of all sizes spread geographically throughout the nation.  This analysis does not provide us with an exhaustive or statistically reliable cross-section of the state of cities in America.  Rather, it gives us some concrete evidence to use as we focus our research, conduct legislative advocacy and help city leaders build better communities.

When we gathered to discuss the speeches we analyzed, one thing was clear: in the face of the challenge of supporting fiscal stability, cities are doing it all.  They are purposefully investing in initiatives that help their citizens thrive from childhood through career.  They are working hard to protect local revenue sources and ensure they can provide necessary city services.  They are finding new ways to develop and maintain citizens’ trust in government.  They are engaging in varied and creative economic development strategies.  They are focusing on the future with innovative, transportation infrastructure projects that create livable communities.  And they are ensuring the long-term sustainability of their communities.

“And so, the fundamental question we face as a city at this moment is whether we will seize our future!” said Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray.  Don’t miss six more posts over the next several weeks that discuss the common themes that illustrate cities’ efforts to “seize the future.”  We will reflect upon these themes and offer our perspective on what this means for moving cities forward.

We also want to hear from you.  Do these examples reflect the challenges and triumphs your community experienced in the last year?  Do you have creative ideas for addressing these challenges and building on success to create a vision for the future?  We urge you to participate in this discussion by commenting on the blog.

Cities Included in the 2012 State of the Cities Project:

Allentown, PA Columbus, GA Milwaukee, WI Richmond, VA
Baltimore, MD Eugene, OR Mount Dora, FL Rogers, AR
Biloxi, MS Folsom, CA New Haven, CT Tacoma, WA
Boulder, CO Fort Wayne, IN Novato, CA Taylorsville, UT
Boulder City, NV Henderson, NV Oklahoma City, OK Tucson, AZ
Buffalo, NY Lakewood, CA Pasadena, CA Washington,  DC
Caldwell, ID Lansing, MI Providence, RI Wyoming, MI
Centerville, OH Louisville, KY

NLC Launches Project #Cities2012

This year’s election will be one of the most important to date.  To influence the process, NLC launches Project #cities2012 to let all candidates – Presidential and Congressional – know what Washington must do to encourage city innovation.

Using social media, local leaders will have the information and tools needed to engage citizens and candidates on top priorities and shed light on what city issues should take center stage during this election cycle.

Tell us: What questions should they ask? What data is being overlooked? What projects can they hold up as good models? What voices should they remember as they move along the campaign trail?

You Tube |

Payroll Tax Cut Deal Paves Way for Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network

The following was written by Mitchel Herckis, Principal Associate for Federal Relations

In these difficult times, it seems rare that we can tout a bipartisan victory that helps cities and towns across the nation.  However, this week Congress has the opportunity to take a major step forward in replacing the current patchwork of voice-only first responder communications with a modern nationwide 4G wireless network that will ensure our first responders receive the information they need when disaster strikes.

Since well before September 11, 2001, cities and towns, along with our first responders, have requested the construction of a nationwide interoperable network for public safety.  After the attacks in 2001, it became a major recommendation of the 9/11 Commission—one of the few never fulfilled by Congress.

However, with the passage of the payroll tax bill, Congress will pave the way for the creation of a nationwide interoperable public safety broadband network that gives our first responders access to technologies that you and I take for granted as commercial customers.

Once fully implemented, first responders will be able to share video, pictures, and data in real time.  Police and fire services from other jurisdictions and states will be able to have their communications equipment seamlessly linked into local systems when responding to major emergencies and national crises.  Most importantly of all, public safety will have a reliable, resilient communications network that they control.

While details of the agreement are still coming out, one thing is certain: this is a big win for the National League of Cities, local governments, and our first responders.

Here’s just some of what the final deal will mean to our nation:

•    Sufficient dedicated spectrum for public safety.  The bill will reallocate the 700 MHz D Block of spectrum to public safety, and retains nationwide “narrowband” 700 MHz spectrum currently used for land mobile radio (LMR) communication.  This ensures our responders will be able to utilize both mission critical voice and modern 4G wireless broadband services to communicate in almost every emergency situation.
•    $7 billion in funds for build out and operate the nationwide network.  While there is a requirement of a non-federal match of at least 20 percent, it may be waived if in “the public interest.”
•    Funding for Next Generation 9-1-1.  NG9-1-1 will allow citizens to send texts, pictures, and video to 9-1-1 call centers, who will in turn be able to share vital information with our first responders.
As a result of gaining this significant benefit for cities and towns, public safety utilizing the “T-Band” (470-512 MHz) will be required to transition off of it over the next 9-11 years.  For many localities, this will mean changing how public safety communications are handled.  To assist localities, the legislation authorizes funding to assist affected state and local governments in relocating from the T-Band.

The bill may also impact some local authority.  Under the bill state and local governments must approve any requests for a modification of an existing wireless tower or base station that does not substantially change the physical dimensions of that tower or base station that involves collocation of new transmission equipment, removal of transmission equipment, or replacement of that transmission equipment.  Historic preservation and environmental requirements will still have to be met, though.

The network will be overseen by a national governance committee consisting of state, local, and tribal representatives, as well as public safety officials, from across the nation.   While individual states will have an option to opt out of the national network construction and conduct their own deployment, their plan to do so would need to be approved by the national governance body, meeting certain requirements of interoperability and perhaps other benchmarks.
While challenges lie ahead, we can safely say Congress has taken the big step in the right direction.  We can also say that we are on the threshold of a great victory for our communities, our first responders, and our nation.

Disappointed by the House Ways and Means Committee

The following post was written by Leslie Wollack, Program Director at the National League of Cities.

NLC is disappointed in the vote by the House Ways and Means Committee to change the way public transportation is funded…a funding structure that has provided highway and transit programs with dedicated and dependable funding for over thirty years.    The Committee voted 15 – 22 to defeat an amendment by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) that would strike the link between highway and transit funding and fund transit entirely from annual appropriations, extremely unlikely in this strained budget climate.

Transit funding is a critical element of communities large and small and vital to creating and getting people to and from jobs in our community.   The House of Representatives is avoiding the larger issue of funding our national infrastructure and leaves it to state and local governments to continue to find ways to hold our national transportation network together.

Mayors Can Be Effective Advocates for Better Schools

The following post was written by Michael Karpman, Senior Associate for Outreach in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families.

Municipal involvement in education has been steadily increasing for at least two decades.  Yet there continues to be a common misperception that mayors who care about education but don’t govern their school districts have few options for improving local schools.  People who still share this notion might gain a different perspective by looking to St. Louis, where Mayor Francis Slay has aggressively advanced a K-12 school improvement agenda since 2001.

The mayor’s office is a member of the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust (CEE-Trust), a “network of city-based education reform organizations, initiatives, and foundations dedicated to accelerating the growth of entrepreneurial education ventures.”  Learning from other network members – including The Mind Trust founded by former Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson and his charter schools director David Harris – and through peer networks in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education and Families, Mayor Slay has demonstrated some of the unique roles that mayors can play in pushing for school reform.

For instance, as an avid supporter of new, high-quality charter school options, Mayor Slay’s office utilizes the city’s regulatory and service delivery expertise to review charter school applications and endorse those with the greatest potential for success.  Local entities with the power to sponsor charter schools benefit from the careful review process conducted by the mayor’s office.

The intensity of the national charter school debate often obscures the wide variation in quality across charter schools.  Mayor Slay’s efforts show how mayors can have a more nuanced and thoughtful discussion about charter school quality.  Elsewhere, Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has supported the development of a charter school incubator, and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard remains the nation’s only mayor with the authority to grant charters.

Recently, Robbyn Wahby, who serves as Mayor Slay’s education advisor and is a longtime member of NLC’s Education Policy Advisors’ Network, shared some thoughts with CEE-Trust about the city’s school reform accomplishments, priorities and challenges.  The interview, which appeared in the January 2012 CEE-Trust Times, is reposted below.


What are a few of Mayor Slay’s greatest achievements in K-12 reform?

 -School Governance

The Mayor chaired a coalition of civic, religious, and business leaders who wanted rapid and dramatic change of the St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) system.  This resulted in the development, campaign, and service of school board members who had a shared platform.  After union-backed leaders took over the school board, the Mayor called for (and got) a state takeover of SLPS.

-Charter Schools

The Mayor replicated the Indianapolis’ mayor’s charter school efforts, with the exception of authorization.  In November of 2007, Mayor Slay issued an RFP for high quality schools and created a board to review the applications and make recommendations for endorsement to the Mayor.  Once endorsed, the Mayor then connects the schools with eligible sponsors.  Additionally, he communicates the names of schools that have been denied to sponsors, thus preventing potentially low performing schools from opening.  Thirteen schools have opened since 2008 under this model.

-Expanding Entrepreneurship:  Teach For America, College Summit 

Mayor Slay asked local businesses to support the start up and ongoing funding for key school reform organizations.  TFA and College Summit have both expanded beyond St. Louis Public Schools to high-need suburban districts as well.

What are the Mayor’s current highest priorities? 

In focusing our education agenda, we tried to make it really simple, asking: how do you get good schools to kids?  Ultimately, what people want is to be able to depend on a good local, community school.  We’re continuing our efforts to attract new charters, working on the replication of existing charters, and closing low performing schools.  Aside from these things, we’re focused on preserving after school programming, increasing opportunities surrounding early childhood, and increasing access to post-secondary education.  We’re keeping several balls in the air, but our K-12 policy is firmly focused on charter schools.   

Given the Mayor’s interest in expanding the charter market, have there been any conversations about launching a charter school incubator? 

Unfortunately, we have not been able to launch an incubator in St. Louis yet.  We have formed a sort of “local CEE-Trust,” bringing top education leaders together to talk about very critical issues in public education and how to advance them here in St. Louis.  Specifically, we’ve discussed how to support the development of new and innovative schools in a scalable way.

This spring, I’ve secured a graduate student intern from Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work to work on our charter incubation efforts.  He is very knowledgeable on school reform, and I’ve asked him to research how to best craft an incubator; he will definitely be in touch with the CEE-Trust network.

What challenges have you faced advancing the reform conversation in St. Louis? 

Like many communities, we’re struggling with the ramifications of a weak economy. There just isn’t as much money to invest in reform right now. The Mayor continues to use his bully pulpit but a lot of the state and local/district conversations right now are being driven by how to slice up an ever smaller pie of tax dollars.

In addition, I’ve learned that simply getting our key education leaders in the same room is not a small order.  They are extremely busy, and to ask them to take on another layer of this work when they have their own goals specific to certain schools and initiatives, is a lot to ask.  Suggesting that we discuss replication, scalability, and incubation on a large scale when these leaders are attempting to launch individual schools can seem pretty daunting. Yet, the positive side is that in a mayor’s office, you have the power to convene; people come because the mayor asked.

How can CEE-Trust and its members be most helpful in your work?  

We’ve got a pretty good network of folks within CEE-Trust.  I feel very comfortable calling on the network, and I think the cities share amongst ourselves as well, whether from a CEE-Trust perspective or otherwise.  An important part of CEE-Trust is that we share issues and ideas with one another, because we often know what the issues are before they’re apparent to the masses.  I think that convening us for those targeted, deliberate meetings is also important.

Todays unemployment numbers

The following post was written by Neil Bomberg, program director in NLC’s Center on Federal Relations:

November’s unemployment numbers, which were released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics or BLS, provide further evidence that the economy is continuing to improve after suffering the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

At first glance, last month’s numbers – a decline in the jobless rate from nine to 8.6 percent and a net increase of 120,000 jobs – are reason to celebrate.  When coupled with the fact that the economy has added nearly 3 million jobs over 21 months there is reason to believe that the economy is trending towards the right direction.

Yet despite these numbers, there remains reason for concern.  While the private sector payroll increased by 140,000 in November, the public sector payroll decreased by 20,000 – including 11,000 jobs in the local government sector.  And these job losses place a strain on the economy even if they are offset by private sector job growth.

Moreover, most economists agree that the economy’s improvement is very slow and very fragile and could be undone by economic problems in Europe, and by a failure of Congress to take positive steps to adopt an effective and appropriate jobs package.  And half of the drop in the percent of individuals unemployed from nine to 8.6 percent was due to a decline in the number of people who are considered part of the labor force, something that does not instill confidence.

But there is also good news in the numbers.  Generally at this time of year we expect to see significant job growth in the retail sector, and that certainly was the case in November.   Of the 140,000 private sector jobs created nearly 50,000 were in the retail trade sector, and of that 27,000 were in clothing and clothing accessories stores.  However, 90,000 jobs were created in other sectors including financial services (+8,000), professional and business services (+33,000), and education and health services (+27,000).

So the news from BLS includes some good and some bad news, but at least it can be said that the direction the unemployment and employment numbers are taking are in the right direction.

But it must also be said that from where NLC sits, without a jobs bill that provides adequate stimulus to the economy the growth in the economy will be anemic at best, and stagnant at worst.  It is time for Congress to act by passing a jobs program that puts people to work in important and meaningful jobs.

Budget Compromise is Only the Beginning

This week we’ve been receiving a lot of phone calls on the budget compromise and where cities came out. NLC, in coordination with cities and towns across the nation, fought hard to preserve priority investments in cities.

The issues NLC identified as priorities – like Community Development Block Grants – help our cities get back on firm financial footing. While the broader economy may be slowly (very slowly) showing signs of life, cities are still at a low point because the revenues have yet to return. This means that cities continue to face budget shortfalls and difficult decisions that will bring cuts to essential services.

The budget passed by Congress cuts highway funds, first responder grants, and of course, reduces CDBG funding which is used in everything from economic development to low income housing. Cities will certainly feel the pain quite severely.

I wish we could say that this is the end of the budget battles, but it is only just beginning. Before the 2011 compromise was voted on, the debate over fiscal 2012 had begun with House Republicans and the President both announcing their own proposals.

Budget deficits are creating enormous pressure on Washington to reduce spending. But unfortunately, many of the proposals hit right at the innovative programs that invest in our communities and our nation’s future. It is vital that all city officials remain vigilant and continue to educate their federal counterparts to the value of these programs on the local level. Demonstrating the local impact is the best way to highlight the programs that do work and deserve to supported.

Kobe, Days 2 and 3: From Questions to Answers — The need for local leadership

This post is by Neil Bomberg, NLC’s Program Director for Human Development and Public Safety.

What appeared to be a conference without answers was rapidly transformed on the second day into a conference with significant answers on how governments can work toward improving the health of their residents and citizens.  The answers, the conferees agreed, lie with local elected officials, including mayors and city council members, and local governments, especially cities and towns.  There was agreement that:

* Local elected leaders can act as role models and champions for walking, cycling, active lifestyles and community designs that support these activities;

* Local elected leaders can enable collaboration between sectors by working with their city departments to develop an integrated urban health strategy;

* Cities and towns have the capacity to partner with their citizens and community-based organizations, as well as the private sector, so that local health care professionals provide health care to all citizens, share information and educate all residents in procedures for maintaining their health, and gather and distribute relevant data necessary for good and sound policymaking.

As the second day progressed, national leaders and mayors and city council members came together in increasingly smaller sessions to discuss the ways in which they are using their powers to lead, enable collaboration, and work with citizens to address citizen health, whether in El Paso, Texas, where the city is working with latino youth to address obesity and unhealthy eating; in Harare, Zimbabwe, where the local government is attempting to reduce substantially traffic related accidents by improving roads; in Male, Maldives, where the government is confronting daily the impact of global warming which threatens water supplies; or Udine, Italy, where the mayor is responding to the plight of Roma who are among the poorest and least able to access services within the community.

On the final day of the Global Forum, the focus once again was on political commitment and leadership. Discussions focused on environmental challenges, ways of reducing violence, and the important of political will in addressing the health and well-being of all residents.  Each of these topics provoked a spirited debate among the delegates on the challenges that local elected leaders are facing.

Then came the formal closing of the conference, as a group of mayors took the stage to present the three key principles of the Call to Action:

1. as a first priority, local governments must focus on uncovering and responding to urban health inequities to ensure that all residents have access to adequate and appropriate health care and services;

2. show leadership by including health in all urban policies through intersectoral responses to the issue of community health; and

3. ensure broad community participation in urban policy and planning.

WHO Director-General Margaret Chan addressed the crowd and reinforced the need for governments at all levels to take the lead:  “Good urban health governance helps ensure that opportunities and advantages are more evenly distributed and that access to health care is more evenly distributed.”

Finally, the day closed with the global launch of the joint UN-HABITAT/WHO report, Hidden Cities: unmasking and overcoming health inequities in urban settings.  To download the report and to see pictures and personal stories from cities around the world, please go to

After a fruitful three days of inspiration for assembled leaders, the challenge for the delegates now is what action they will take to turn their cities into healthy cities.

For highlights and a recap of all three days and outcomes, please visit