Strong Partnerships Yield Better Education Outcomes

This is the seventh post in NLC’s 90th Anniversary series.

ColemanWithKidsNLC President Chris Coleman, Mayor of Saint Paul, Minn., has made education a centerpiece of his mayoral vision.

As the National League of Cities celebrates its 90th year of service to cities, we are heartened to see that improving educational outcomes for young people has become a top priority for mayors and local elected officials across the country. Although most mayors and other municipal leaders do not have formal authority over school districts, they understand how critical education is to building up their communities. They know that the quality of their schools is directly tied to the quality of life and well-being of their residents.

Mayors and education leaders must work in partnership to help young people succeed. And many are doing just that.

For almost 15 years, NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute) has been working with mayors and councilmembers in cities across the country to exercise leadership to support K-12 education, expand alternatives for students who struggle in traditional educational settings, increase high school graduation rates and promote college access and completion. We have also been working hand in hand with mayors and councilmembers to expand and improve high quality afterschool programs in communities across the nation.

The YEF Institute has worked with cities to establish local teams to develop action plans with specific goals and measures. Typically led by mayors, these teams are comprised of school superintendents, community- and faith-based organizations, local colleges and universities and business leaders. Over the years we have worked with and assisted mayors in leading local education initiatives — all in partnership with school districts and other community stakeholders.

Partnerships between cities and school districts are powerful because together these entities can collectively own the problems and share in the successes. Examples of successful partnerships that we have helped support over the last 15 years include:

  • In the Institute’s early years we worked with local officials and school leaders to address the persistent student achievement gap and improve literacy and attendance rates in cities such as Columbus, Ohio and Lansing, Mich.
  • During the middle years, we focused on introducing small school models in Indianapolis, Nashville, Tenn., and Newark, N.J. to address the rise in high school dropout rates.
  • In more recent years, we have focused on ensuring that more low-income young people are attending and completing college. We have worked with Mesa, Ariz., Riverside, Calif., and San Francisco among others to establish multi-sector partnerships between mayors, school superintendents and local community colleges. We now have a growing network of 18 cities through our Postsecondary Success City Action Network (P-SCAN), with mayors playing key leadership roles.
  • For 11 years we have maintained a strong network of mayors through the Education Policy Advisors Network, drawn from the 75 largest cities in the U.S. Our Afterschool Policy Advisors Network is also strong. These networks provide city leaders a unique opportunity to share best practices and learn about the latest research in the field.

Most recently, NLC entered into a partnership with the U.S. Department of Education to increase the visibility and understanding of the role that mayors can play in leading educational change in their communities. As a result of this partnership, 15 cities are holding community conversations on education, with a focus on early childhood, afterschool and postsecondary education.

Educated citizens are likely to contribute more to the economy and build a stronger workforce. Businesses are more likely to want to place their anchors in communities with good schools. Mayors and councilmembers care deeply about these issues, and so do we.

The YEF Institute is committed to supporting cities by providing technical assistance, sharing best practices, creating robust peer learning opportunities and developing effective tools to support communities in their work to build better communities by improving educational opportunities and outcomes for all residents.

Audrey Hutchinson

About the Author: Audrey M. Hutchinson is the Program Director of Education and Afterschool Initiatives in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

A 20-Year Shift in Neighborhood Investing

brooklynA new condo building stands in the the lower east side of Manhattan. Source: Getty Images.

Where we live, the kind of homes we occupy and the quest for a place of our own remains closely tied to that goal on the horizon we call, The American Dream. Consequently, our nation’s leaders, including those at the local level, devote tremendous energy to issues relating to housing and neighborhoods.

A scan of the last twenty years illustrates some significant and notable shifts in approach to these issues – with implications for the kind of housing that gets built, who pays for development and at what level and who has choices in the marketplace and who does not.

For example, let’s look back at 1994 when the Home Investment Partnership Program (HOME) was in its fourth year. The HOME program provides formula grants to states and localities that communities use – often in partnership with local nonprofit groups – to fund building, buying and rehabilitating affordable housing for rent or ownership or providing direct rental assistance to low-income residents.

This program remains a staple of the local landscape and a bulwark in support of housing opportunities for those seeking to reach a critical rung on the ladder to the middle class. In fact, during evaluations of this program during 1994, the value and scope of HOME was not in question; the debate centered on the ease and efficiency of program administration and reporting.

PullQuoteIn the same year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) launched a bold effort called the National Community Development Initiative. Brought to the table was a coalition of 10 major corporations and foundations collaborating to raise $87.65 million in partnership with HUD to accelerate central city neighborhood renewal in 23 cities. Through this remarkable partnership, $20 million from HUD was matched by $15 million from Prudential, $15 million from the Rockefeller Foundation and $12 million from J. P. Morgan, among other partners.

By 1998, research from the respected Urban Institute, and its team of researchers Christopher Walker and Mark Weinheimer (Weinheimer & Associates), offered the first solid evidence of program progress. For community development corporations in the 23 target cities, the report found that housing unit production was up, budgets were larger, management structures were vastly improved and funding sources were more diversified.

Views about community lending also were different in 1994. At that time, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) was being lauded as a valuable tool to ensure access to credit throughout a community.

Passed into law in 1977 and amended several times, there remained an expectation that this measure increased the ability of advocacy groups, researchers, and other analysts to “perform more-sophisticated, quantitative analyses of banks’ records,” to paraphrase Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke some years later.

There was an expectation that over time, community groups and nonprofit organizations would establish “more-formalized and more-productive partnerships with banks,” thereby influencing the lending policies of banks.

A Different Kind of Partnership

Jumping forward to 2004, you can hear the alarm bells sounding. The HOPE VI program was coming under considerable criticism as a tool to build affordable housing for those most in need. Public housing advocates increasingly needed to rely on private sector investment to serve those who were not able to pay market rates for rent.

Charles Lyons of Arlington, Mass., President of the National League of Cities that year, was so concerned about the “inequality in our communities due to a lack of affordable housing,” that he launched the Divided We Fall campaign to focus on the growing disparities in cities.

partnerpullDisparities continue to confront Americans today, not only in housing and neighborhood amenities but in educational attainment, income and wealth generation, poverty rates, and criminal sentencing.

Despite these disparities, a lively, engaging federal-local partnership on national priorities remains absent. Rather than a partnership with the federal government, all that localities have now is the prospect of federal leverage. This leverage comes in the form of small pools of dollars offered mostly on a competitive basis and encumbered with enough restrictions and conditions to all but eliminate the possibility for experimentation and truly creative thinking from local decision makers.

If we accept the fact that government alone cannot solve the significant challenges that confront communities and that partnerships are the essential ingredient to success, then the only operative question to ask is, ‘What type of partnership will yield the greatest success?’ To that question, the balance of historical fact argues for a partnership of equals, dedicated to achieving consensus, led by those with the proximity and the experience to mobilize community resources in order to achieve positive outcomes for all the stakeholders. It is this recognition and acknowledgement of a wider shared responsibility to the public interest, rather than to any private interest, that is the required component to establish “a more perfect Union.”

It can only be hoped that by the time the National League of Cities stands to celebrate its centennial, the much desired federal-local partnership will be a reality.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement.  Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.

Protecting Federalism: Still the Battle Cry of Cities

The year 1995 was a time of “reinventing government,” with both the Clinton Administration and the new Republican majority Congress pledging to streamline government, balance the federal budget, and shift policy responsibilities to states, local governments and the private sector.

Fundamental questions about the roles and responsibilities of government took center stage in Washington. One that NLC was particularly concerned about was whether federal programs could be reduced or eliminated without shifting the costs to local governments in the form of unfunded mandates.

Then NLC Executive Director Don Borut said cities are essential partners in federalism discussions. “This national discussion on governance provides an important opportunity to restructure the relationship between local government and the federal system.”

pull1The renewed focus on federalism was at time when cities were seeing a rise in regulatory or “coercive federalism” through regulations, mandates and preemptions and a decline in fiscal federalism, as Borut noted years later. From 1945-1995, the number of federal mandates on state and local governments increased from less than 10 to more than 100 (and probably more so today). Since the late 1970s the federal government’s share of city budgets has declined from about 15 percent to 5 percent (and probably less so today).

Thus, NLC developed a framework of principles through which to engage, initiate, and respond to specific structural and programmatic changes in government. One of the principles focused on “effective federalism,” meaning “not leaving national problems on the doorstep of local governments.”

Cities saw a major victory on the unfunded mandates front in 1995. The culmination of nearly two years work by NLC was celebrated at the 1995 Congressional City Conference with the news that the House and Senate Conference Committee had reached agreement on the final version of the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act (UMRA). In fact, President Clinton’s speech to NLC members was his first public endorsement of the bill and he guaranteed his signature.

NLC Second Vice President Greg Lashutka, Mayor, Columbus, OH said, “What was once the battle cry of overburdened cities and towns – no more unfunded mandates – is now on its way to becoming law of the land.”

A few days after the conference, President Clinton signed the landmark legislation before a jubilant crowd of state and local leaders from across the nation, including then NLC board member Clarence Anthony.

“As the long-awaited moment approached, sunshine broke from behind a wall of clouds, the Rose Garden was flooded with light, and clear skies graced the ceremony – an appropriate atmosphere for the signing of legislation that for the first time holds Congress accountable for the mandates it imposes on state and local governments and aims to prevent future unfunded mandates,” described an NLC news article.

With such optimism in 1995, the question then becomes, has the law lived up to its expectations? Hold that thought.

Over the course of the next several years, NLC joined with the other “Big Seven” state and local organizations in working with the Administration on additional guidance for implementing laws and developing rules that affect cities.

To that end, in August 1999, President Clinton issued Executive Order 13132: Federalism to “further the policies of the Unfunded Mandates Reform Act” and to “ensure that the principles of federalism established by the Framers guide the executive departments and agencies in the formulation and implementation of policies.”

In addition to enumerating the basic principles of federalism, the Executive Order directed federal agencies to set up a consultation process “to ensure meaningful and timely input by State and local officials in the development of regulatory policies that have federalism implications.”

Under UMRA, an annual regulatory cost of over $100 million, in aggregate, to state and local government triggers an intergovernmental consultation process between the agency and elected officials.  Under the Executive Order, federal agencies adopted guidance consistent with UMRA—a $100 million threshold for triggering the consultation process.

UMRA and the Executive Order in Review – EPA Does it Right

So, how effective has UMRA and the Executive Order together been in curtailing unfunded mandates and promoting the intergovernmental partnership?

Since 1997, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has assessed whether legislation considered by Congress contains unfunded mandates and whether any unfunded mandate costs exceeds the UMRA threshold.

According to CBO, in the 17 years since UMRA became effective, there have been 13 laws with intergovernmental mandates that had costs estimated to exceed the statutory threshold, the last of which was enacted in 2010. Examples include increases in the minimum wage; minimum standards for issuing drivers licenses, identification cards and vital statistics documents; and requirements on rail and transit owners and operators.

As an elected or city official, you might say to yourself, “I know there have been more unfunded mandates placed on local governments than that!”

Well, there are limitations to how UMRA defines an unfunded mandate, and some federal requirements that are not considered mandates under UMRA have still imposed burdens or costs on local governments. Congress has been pretty careful in the way it structures laws to avoid creating mandates in a technical sense. For example, the No Child Left Behind Act has obligations that must be met as a condition for receiving federal grants, but it is not considered an unfunded mandate under UMRA.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), perhaps more than any other agency, has been criticized for imposing a significant number of costly unfunded mandates on state and local governments, it is a model for effective federalism in that the process it uses today for developing rules serves to strengthen the intergovernmental partnership.

pull2Since the Executive Order was issued in 1999 through 2008, only two EPA regulations were found to have aggregate costs to state and local governments above the $100 million threshold for triggering the intergovernmental consultation process. Yet, state and local governments know that the costs of complying with federal environmental rules and regulations are high and the number of unfunded regulatory mandates is growing.

In 2008 the agency undertook a review of its Federalism guidance, including soliciting comments on whether to lower the threshold for intergovernmental consultation. NLC, along with the other “Big Seven” state and local government groups supported lowering the threshold in order to have more regular consultation with elected officials, earlier in the regulatory process.

In November 2008, EPA announced that it was lowering the intergovernmental consultation threshold to $25 million in the “spirit” of federalism to improve the way the agency defines, conducts and makes regulatory decisions.

“By lowering the threshold, local governments could be consulted on a more regular basis on issues of mutual importance to the quality of life in the communities we both aim to serve and the fiscal impact of those decisions,” said NLC President Kathleen Novak.

“State and local officials often serve as the ‘front line’ managers of federally mandated environmental regulations,” said EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock. “If we want good rules, early consultation with these partners is crucial.”

Since the new, lower EPA Federalism guidance went into effect, NLC and the other state and local government groups were consulted with on 16 different rulemaking procedures before a proposed rule was even written, an opportunity that rarely existed before.

Building on Success

EPA’s action came at a time when state and local officials were calling for a stronger working relationship with federal partners in solving major environmental challenges.

The consultation is important. The early input is the rulemaking process gives cities a seat at the table and a say in shaping a rule from the beginning, which NLC has long advocated for and which strengthens the intergovernmental partnership.

Federal preemption of local authority and unfunded mandates from Congress and all the federal agencies are still serious concerns for local governments. UMRA was a victory for cities, but it has not stopped unfunded mandates in a broad sense. The lower EPA threshold for intergovernmental consultation was a victory for cities, which all agencies should follow.

With the midterm elections a few months away and as the nation gears up for the next presidential election, perhaps it is time for a new, new national discussion on federalism for the 21st Century.

Carolyn Berndt

About the author: Carolyn Berndt is the Program Director for Infrastructure and Sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. She leads NLC’s advocacy, regulatory, and policy efforts on energy and environmental issues, including water infrastructure and financing, air and water quality, climate change, and energy efficiency. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.

The YEF Institute: An Exciting New Chapter in NLC’s Leadership on Policy and Best Practice

This is the sixth post in NLC’s 90th Anniversary series.

Mayor-menino-yef

For decades, one of the hallmarks of the National League of Cities’ work has been a sharp and sustained focus on policy and best practice. Mayors, city councilmembers and other city leaders have come to NLC as a place of ideas – a place to debate key policy issues and to learn about what’s working (and what’s not) in communities across the nation.

With the launch of the Institute for Youth, Education, and Families (YEF Institute) in 2000, NLC added another chapter to this long legacy and an exciting, groundbreaking dimension to its portfolio of resources and offerings. As originally envisioned by former Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the founding chair of NLC’s Council on Youth, Education, and Families, the YEF Institute serves as an “action tank” rather than a “think tank” as it helps municipal leaders address the needs of children, youth and families in their own communities. The YEF Institute works in five core program areas:  education and afterschool, early childhood, youth development, the safety of youth, and family economic success.

It’s hard to overstate the pivotal role that Mayor Menino played in the Institute’s creation.  By the end of his first term in office, he was already attracting national attention for his efforts to improve outcomes for children, youth and families. His efforts to quell youth violence – dubbed “the Boston Miracle” when more than two years passed in the mid-1990’s without a single youth homicide in the city – contributed greatly to the stream of city officials heading to Boston’s City Hall in search of guidance and advice. The Mayor was flattered by the attention, but also knew that he and his staff could not possibly serve as the “go-to” place on best practice for the entire country.

In response, Mayor Menino spent two years leading an NLC task force to examine the topic, developing the concept of an Institute focused on children and families, and raising start-up funds to ensure that the effort got off the ground. It simply would not have happened without his leadership and hard work.

And what a difference the YEF Institute has made. Over the course of 14 years, it has provided practical help and advice to hundreds of cities of all sizes and in every region of the United States. The YEF Institute has grown from an idea to a staff of 25, an expansion made possible by a strong reputation and track record that has attracted cumulative investments of more than $42 million from national foundations and other sources.

So much work remains to be done. The challenges facing mayors and other city leaders are enormous, and they have been exacerbated by a pattern of retrenchment and funding cuts at both federal and state levels. Municipal leaders largely understand that they will have to find or craft their own solutions within their communities, in many instances relying only upon existing resources.

That’s why it’s more important than ever for city officials to build upon lessons learned, replicating or adapting successful approaches while doing everything they can to avoid repeating mistakes that have already been made elsewhere.

I’m so excited and honored to be a part of this new chapter in NLC’s proud and storied history. New and emerging work in areas of health, early learning, postsecondary success, financial inclusion and connecting children to nature will keep the YEF Institute at the cutting edge of municipal initiatives that seek to improve outcomes for children, youth and families. And success in improving these outcomes is a key ingredient for the continued strength and vitality of America’s cities and towns in the years ahead.

CJohnson_Headshot_HiResAbout the Author: Clifford Johnson is the Executive Director of NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

40 Years Later, Why Advocating for CDBG Still Matters

This is the fifth post in NLC’s 90th Anniversary series.

"Gerald Ford speaking into microphones, 9 Aug 1974" by O'Halloran, Thomas J., photographer.Leffler, Warren K., photographer.

“Gerald Ford speaking into microphones, Aug 1974” by O’Halloran, Thomas J., photographer.

The Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) turns 40 this August, marking an important milestone for the National League of Cities (NLC) and other stakeholders. To observe the occasion, NLC has teamed up with the co-chairs of the Congressional Urban Caucus, Representatives Chaka Fattah (D-PA) and Michael Turner (R-OH), to support H.Res. 668, Supporting the goals and ideals of the Community Development Block Grant program. Additional cosponsors are welcome, and you can help.

The 40th Anniversary of CDBG is also an opportunity to reflect on how NLC’s views of the program have evolved over successive legislative campaigns. NLC has been a champion of CDBG from the very beginning, when President Gerald Ford enacted the program by signing the Housing and Community Development Act on August 22, 1974.

In the intervening years, NLC has led numerous campaigns to turn back efforts to weaken or eliminate the program. Although campaigns to “Save CDBG” have been successful thanks to the advocacy of thousands of local elected officials, NLC has taken a more nuanced view of legislative proposals regarding program flexibility over CDBG’s 40 year history.

CDBG was conceived and enacted in the 1970’s, following significant social upheaval and ongoing disparities within cities and towns. The program replaced 7 previous federal programs – Urban Renewal, Model Cities, Water and Sewer Facilities, Open Spaces, Neighborhood Facilities, Rehabilitation Loans and Public Facility Loans[1]. NLC advocated in support of the consolidation and rallied support for the new CDBG program[2].  There were many reasons for this, but two stand out.

First, many of the programs CDBG replaced, like Urban Renewal, had become racially divisive within communities and highly politicized within Congress. Second, CDBG replaced several highly targeted programs with one flexible program that provided local officials with a greater degree of local control over federal funds. Upon signing the bill, President Ford expressed this second reason by saying “this bill will help return power from the banks of the Potomac to people in their own communities. Decisions will be made at the local level.”

At some point in the 1980s however, NLC’s leadership was concerned that the pendulum was swinging too far in the direction of flexibility and actually came out against a proposal to eliminate the requirement that CDBG primarily benefit those in low and middle income brackets. NLC’s President at that time, Cleveland Mayor George Voinovich, who would go on to be a U.S. Senator from Ohio, testified to Congress that, “without meaningful guidelines and review by HUD of a city’s compliance with the primary objectives of the Act . . . pressures to fund a wide range of unfocused activities will be very severe.” [3]

He put it more bluntly in an UPI interview, “we insist the program be used for low and moderate income people.  Otherwise it becomes revenue sharing and then it disappears.  It is money meant to rebuild our cities.  It is not meant to meet a lot of other needs.”  Mayor Voinovich proved correct when general revenue sharing was eliminated in the late 1980s.

NLC was almost too successful, however, in turning back the proposal to drop CDBG targeting requirements. By the 1990s NLC had refocused on increasing flexibility and local control under the CDBG program. A survey of NLC members in 1994 showed that local official’s views on CDBG were evolving again.

On a question about local community development, a majority of respondents said the primary goal of community development was to improve the tax base. Poverty alleviation was secondary.[4]

More recently, questions of program flexibility have receded as successive budget crises have resulted in significant funding cuts for the CDBG program. Still, in the 2000s, NLC lead two successful campaigns to turn back Administrative proposals to eliminate CDBG by means of consolidation. And despite recent program cuts, CDBG continues to stand out as one of the few federal programs to maintain a significant bipartisan base of support.

Moreover, it has remained sufficiently flexible to be repurposed to meet contemporary challenges. The CDBG program proved effective for local efforts to overcome the recent home foreclosure crisis and subsequent national economic downturn, serving in many instances as a crucial source of gap funding for projects and services that otherwise would have been cut from local budgets.

In addition to housing and infrastructure, CDBG is being used in ways entirely unforeseen in the 1970s, supporting economic development efforts that have led to much-needed job creation.

The next challenge to CDBG is not likely to be too far off. For 40 years, CDBG has funded thousands of projects and programs and not every project is a success. After 40 years, it’s almost inevitable that some funding would find its way to unscrupulous use.

With such an expansive history, it’s possible for CDBG champions and opponents alike to create further lists of projects that demonstrate the best and worst uses of the program. Program funding grows more challenging each year as well, as the percentage of the HUD budget required to fund housing vouchers steadily climbs. History suggests simply preserving the status quo is a formula for diminished returns.

My book signing will be at 10:00 and 14:00About the author: Michael Wallace is Program Director for Community and Economic Development at the National League of Cities. As a member of the Federal Advocacy team, Michael works closely with mayors, council members and municipal staff to represent local priorities in the areas of housing, community development and economic growth.

 

 

[1] Richard P. Nathan and Paul R. Dommel, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 93, No. 3 (Autumn, 1978), pp. 421-442
[2] Timothy Conlan “From New Federalism to Devolution”, pp. 47-50
[3] Ferguson, Ronald F., Urban Problems and Community Development, p. 146
[4] National League of Cities. 1994. “Attitudes toward Economic Development and Poverty.”

What the End of the “Get Tough on Crime” Era Means for Cities

This is the fourth post in NLC’s 90th Anniversary series.

Prison-crime-blog

The “get tough on crime” movement, emerging in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to enormous increases in drug arrests, longer prison sentences with mandatory minimums, more punitive juvenile justice sentencing and greater incarceration of juveniles, low-income individuals and people of color.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), about 6.98 million people were under some form of adult correctional supervision in the U.S. at yearend, 2011.  This is the equivalent of about 1 in 34 adults – or about 2.9 percent of the adult population – in prison or jail, or on probation or parole.

By the end of 2012, there were around 1.35 million people incarcerated in state prisons, 217,800 in federal prisons and 744,500 in local jails. From 1998 to 2009, the state cost of mass incarceration of criminals increased from $12 billion to $52 billion per year.

Today, there is movement to reform the criminal justice system and reverse the trend of mass incarceration of nonviolent and drug related offenders.  Federal, state and local leaders are looking for innovative ways to reduce the costs of criminal justice and corrections by keeping low-risk, nonviolent, drug involved offenders out of prison or jail, while still holding them accountable and ensuring the safety of our communities.

The Administration, Congress and many states are enacting new policies to slow the growth of prison populations and even downsizing corrections systems to save hundreds of millions of dollars.

Impact of Reform on Cities

As federal and state sentencing reforms begin to take shape, cities and towns will most likely see a considerable rise in the number of former nonviolent criminals returning back home.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy over 9 million ex-offenders cycle through local jails and nearly 700,000 ex-offenders are released from state and federal prisons every year back into their local communities.  This number is expected to go up dramatically as sentencing reform takes place. Without sufficient federal and state support for local programs aimed at transitioning ex-offenders back into the community, cities may see a rise in crime levels which will lead to an increase in recidivism rates.

The BJS estimated two-thirds (68 percent) of the 405,000 prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and three-quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years.  More than a third (37 percent) of prisoners who were arrested within five years of release were arrested within the first six months after release, with more than half (57 percent) arrested by the end of the first year.

Support to Prevent Recidivism

While experts agree that sentencing reform is needed for nonviolent, drug related and juvenile delinquent crimes, there is also a need to increase the level of funding and support for programs to prevent recidivism.

The Second Chance Act (SCA), signed into law on April 9, 2008, was designed to improve outcomes for people returning to communities after incarceration. The legislation authorizes federal grants to local governments and nonprofit organizations to provide support and services to reduce recidivism.

In accordance with the SCA, in 2013, the Department of Justice awarded $62 million in competitive and supplemental grants to 112 state, tribal and local governments and non-profit organizations to reduce recidivism, provide reentry services, conduct research and evaluate the impact of reentry programs.

Grant programs authorized by SCA could get additional funding to support local government efforts to reduce recidivism, but only if the federal government does not divert the money saved from reducing prison populations to deficit reduction or other efforts.

Role of Local Elected Officials

There are a number of barriers that prevent young nonviolent ex-offenders from becoming productive members in their communities, including drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, unemployment and homelessness. Once in the criminal justice system, many of these young people will have criminal records that will last for decades, if not the rest of their lives.

When they are released from prison, many of them have difficulty finding a job and a place to live, and most return to a life of crime because of the lack of opportunities.  Thus, the cycle of recidivism continues, creating challenges and missed opportunities not only for themselves and their families but for the cities in which the live.

Mayors and council members across the country are looking at ways to support local programs that help ex-offenders re-enter into society.  One of the key challenges is to create an equitable and sustainable system that will provide opportunities for nonviolent ex-offenders to find jobs and affordable housing.  More than 60 cities and 12 states across the country have instituted policies that would ban the box on employment applications asking individuals about their conviction history.

Municipal officials play a vital role in reintegrating ex-offenders back in society.  They manage key functions of local government that are essential to breaking the cycle of recidivism, including law enforcement, jails, health and human services, housing authorities, workforce development boards, after school programs, and community development programs.  They also play a vital role in bringing together key stakeholders, community leaders, and faith-based organizations that provide many of the social services that are needed by ex-offenders.

The Urban Institute put together the Elected Official’s Toolkit for Reentry (2011) to help local elected officials develop successful reentry programs for ex-offenders.  In addition, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Labor published the Council of State Governments White Paper titled the Integrated Reentry and Employment Strategies: Reducing Recidivism and Promoting Job Readiness.

Need for Federal Action

There is movement in Congress to pass legislation that will allow a pathway to sealing criminal records of adult nonviolent ex-offenders and sealing and expunging juvenile records to make it easier for ex-offenders to apply for employment.  Citing the need to embrace bipartisan solutions that lessen the taxpayers’ burden and increase public safety, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY) introduced S. 2567, The REDEEM Act (Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment).

Additional policy changes are being considered by federal, state and local leaders that would lift the ban on certain benefits for low level drug offenders who may need medical and substance abuse treatments and examine policies that may prevent these ex-offenders from finding affordable housing.

On January 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder also convened the Federal Interagency Reentry Council  with the purpose of removing federal barriers to successful reentry, so that ex-offenders who have served their time and paid their debts are able to compete for a job, attain stable housing, support their families, and contribute to their communities.

NLC continues to work closely with other local and state government organizations to support federal policies such as the Second Chance Act to help municipalities develop successful and sustainable programs aimed at reducing recidivism and reintegrating ex-offenders back into the community.

Yucel-OrsAbout the Author: Yucel (u-jel) Ors is NLC’s Program Director of Public Safety and Crime Prevention. Through Federal Advocacy, he lobbies on behalf of cities around crime prevention, corrections, substance abuse, municipal fire policy, juvenile justice, disaster preparedness and relief, homeland security, domestic terrorism, court systems and gun control.  Follow Yucel on Twitter at @nlcpscp.

90 Years of Helping City Leaders Improve the Local Business Climate

Seattle, Washington“How does a city government work with local industries, businesses, and institutions to keep them in the city and improve communications with them?” This crucial question was raised by Mayor Sam Schwartzkopf of Lincoln, Nebraska, in a 1968 article in NLC’s previously published Nation’s Cities magazine titled “You Have to Work to Keep Industry.” In today’s economic climate, the issue of business retention and expansion remains a prominent issue for city leaders and economic developers.

While many mayors and city councils across the country recognize the value of attracting new industries and businesses, there is also a growing emphasis on fostering local talent and supporting entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Mayor Schwartzkopf suggested back in 1968 that NLC members should consider adopting a city program he launched in Nebraska to personally visit local shops and companies and ask how the city can be of service to them. The Mayor and his team aimed to meet with as many of the city’s 300 firms as possible.

“Although the attraction of new firms and industries to any community is always extremely important, I feel that city government today must show its present industries that city government is deeply interested in them and that city government wants them to be interested in their city,” Schwartzkopf wrote in his article. “I strongly feel that city government must know what its industrial, business, and institutional leaders are thinking; what they would like to see done within the city.”

Some of the business assistance that Mayor Schwartzkopf provided as a result of his visits included providing increased police presence to an outlying industrial neighborhood, removing street parking to help reduce traffic congestion, modernizing street lighting, and dispatching city engineers to inspect the quality of a storm sewer near a steel company.

This type of support for the local business community is very similar to what we see today from cities involved in NLC’s Big Ideas for Small Business network. Our recent report on small business development highlights two key strategies for developing a business-friendly climate – proactively engaging the local business community and creating advisory councils with representation from small business.

As we highlight in the report, the city of Seattle’s Business Retention and Expansion Program (BREP) strives to retain and grow early-stage business through proactive outreach initiatives. The city staff who lead BREP aim to provide 250 businesses with direct assistance every year. The Seattle program has already helped hundreds of businesses find funding opportunities, select new site locations, and navigate government regulations.

In Cincinnati, the city formed a Small Business Advisory Committee (SBAC) as a mechanism for the local small business community to advise city officials on policies and programs. The SBAC voices the concerns of business owners and works in collaboration with city officials to find solutions to common problems. One of the city’s accomplishments since the establishment of the SBAC has been to streamline the permitting process by creating “jump teams” of city employees that work in coordination to assist small businesses.

While the economic landscape has evolved in many ways since 1968, Mayor Schwartzkopf from Lincoln knew back then what remains important today: getting the business friendly basics right is critical to supporting and growing local businesses. NLC is grateful to still be providing research, education and best practices about how cities can do just this.

NLC at 90: Advocating For Our Nation’s Transportation Infrastructure

NLC is celebrating 90 years of making cities better place to live. Read the anniversary kick-off letter from NLC President Chris Coleman, and the first blog in this 90th anniversary series.

Transportation_BlogAs NLC continues to celebrate its 90th anniversary, this week we focus our attention on transportation. From the ISTEA in ’91, to TEA-21 in ’98 to SAFETEA-LU in 2005, to our current transportation legislation, MAP-21, NLC has been a staunch advocate for local interests on transportation legislation.

How cities plan for transportation has greatly evolved over the past several decades. NLC has seen several cities move from an approach that focuses on road construction to one that favors more dense development. Transit, bike lanes and better sidewalks are being incorporated into a more alternative approach to community development – and local governments are realizing environmental, economic and social benefits to this.

Recognizing the central importance of transit to communities across the country, NLC has been a consistent champion for policies that reflect local needs and  include local voices in planning and project selection. For example:

  • Cities saw a victory in ISTEA as it preserved an intergovernmental partnership between all levels of government, maintained local government authority on federal dollars being used for local transportation decisions and upheld an intermodal approach to transportation development.
  • TEA-21 sustained many key features from ISTEA that protected cities but also came with increased funding – the largest federal commitment to transportation since the Interstate system was built.
  • NLC continued its aggressive lobbying approach with SAFETEA-LU which contained several important provisions for local governments by defeating a program that would have carved out a portion of core transportation program funding for congestion-relief activities. This would ultimately have given state departments of transportation the authority to control these funds by allowing them to define what would constitute a “congestion-relief activity.”

The Time Has Come For a New Plan

The current federal surface transportation program authorization, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), signed in 2012, funds highway, transit and other surface transportation programs through the end of fiscal year 2014 (FY2014.)

However, the law did not address long-term funding challenges facing federal surface transportation funding. The Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund is expected to encounter a shortfall before the end of FY2014, coinciding with the expiration of the current transportation spending program.

Any delay in solving the funding shortfall will be harmful to local economies. The time has come for Congress and the Administration to authorize a new, lasting transportation plan that includes local decision making authority, invests in long term equitable transportation solutions, supports sustainable multimodal choices and maintains a strong federal role.

NLC advocates for the federal government to continue its role in shaping the nation’s transportation goals and priorities. A national program needs to focus on sustainable solutions to mobility and safety, maintain the national role as leader in data, adapt successful technological approaches and promote innovative transportation solutions.

Investment in local infrastructure creates jobs and boosts local economies. With adequate funding and innovative financing solutions, local leaders can train and hire thousands of workers to carry out both immediate fixes and long-term road, bridge, transit and rail projects. A comprehensive funding solution will allow local leaders to make the long-term investments and planning decisions their communities need.

To learn more about NLC’s current efforts on transportation, access the Transportation Funding Advocacy Toolkit and register for NLC’s next transportation webinar “What’s Walking Got to Do With It? A Look at the Social and Economic Impact of Walkability.”

JuliaPulidindi

About the author: Julia Pulidindi is a Senior Associate for Infrastructure at the National League of Cities (NLC). Her work focuses on identifying local challenges and solutions to transportation and telecommunications infrastructure issues.  Follow her on Twitter at @JuliaPulidindi.

NLC at 90: Supporting Our Nation’s Veterans

NLC is celebrating 90 years of making cities better place to live. Read the anniversary kick-off letter from NLC President Chris Coleman, mayor of Saint Paul, Minn.

NLC supported veteran education opportunities following the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of Morehead State University

Photo courtesy of Morehead State University

As NLC celebrates its 90th anniversary, we again join the nation in pausing this Memorial Day weekend to reflect on the sacrifices made by the men and women who have served in our armed forces.

Today, as in the past, cities face the reality of thousands of veterans returning home from the battlefield. With their unique skills and experiences, veterans are assets to our communities.

To support veterans and their families, NLC works with local leaders to ensure our veterans successfully reintegrate into communities after their time in the military has ended.

In the wake of the Vietnam War, NLC partnered with the Office of Economic Opportunity to establish the Veterans’ Education and Training Services (VETS) program. The program worked with veteran “peer counselors” in Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, Providence, Seattle and Wichita.

Peer counselors worked with veterans to help them connect to education and training programs, employment counseling, housing and other services.

In the program’s first three and a half years, more than 25,000 veterans were connected to some form of assistance. An outside evaluation of the VETS program noted, “The most effective programs tended to be those with strong ties to local governmental agencies.”

Today, NLC’s work to support veterans continues. As the country’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan declines, our military is undergoing force reductions due to changing global needs. The confluence of these factors with an economy continuing to recover from the Great Recession has led to veteran unemployment rates that have been above the national average, particularly for veterans who have served after September 11th.

These challenges are one element that can explain why young veterans and their families are already being seen among the ranks of our nation’s homeless.

To help end this national tragedy by the federal goal of 2015, NLC has partnered with The Home Depot Foundation. By supporting cities, sharing best practices and engaging with local efforts, The Home Depot Foundation, NLC and cities have been a part of a 24 percent decline in veteran homelessness since 2010.

This progress is due to a focused effort by the President and agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, HUD and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. While these federal agencies have provided resources and technical support to communities, it has been the collaborative work driven by city leaders that has powered this change.

From San Diego to Salt Lake City, Phoenix to St. Paul, New Orleans to Washington, D.C., cities are at the center of efforts that are uniting all levels of government with the non-profit community, faith communities, the business sector and philanthropies.

Cities will always be hubs of economic activity and services. Ensuring veterans receive the dignity of a safe place to call home and the opportunity to continue serving their community has been a hallmark of NLC’s first 90 years.

Moving forward, NLC and our members will continue our presence on the front lines to honor our veterans and their families.

Elisha_blogAbout the Author: Elisha Harig-Blaine is the Principal Associate for Housing (Veterans and Special Needs) at NLC. Follow Elisha on Twitter at @HarigBlaine.