Meet Your Municipal Finance Advocate

“When cities are given the directive and the resources, projects just get done faster, more efficiently and with better end results.”

Every week leading up to the 2017 Congressional City Conference we’ll feature a “Meet Your City Advocate” spotlight as part of a series introducing you to NLC’s Federal Advocacy team. This week, I sat down with Brett Bolton, principal associate for finance & intergovernmental relations at NLC.

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Brett Bolton is the principal associate for finance and intergovernmental relations at the National League of Cities. (Brian Egan/NLC)

Name: Brett Bolton
Area of expertise: Finance and Intergovernmental Relations
Hometown: Pensacola, Florida

Hey Brett, thanks for taking the time to do this interview with me. Why don’t you share a little bit about your background and why you are passionate about cities?

I was born and raised in Pensacola, Florida – the Navy originally brought my mom’s family down that way. I went to college in Birmingham, Alabama, and grad school in Tallahassee, Florida, before eventually making my way up to Washington. After school, I interned for Congressman Steve Southerland in his D.C. office. He represented Florida’s second district – basically the area along the panhandle between Panama City and Tallahassee. I wound up getting a staff position as a legislative correspondent and stayed there for two years. After my time on the Hill, I lobbied for the state of Florida. Most of my work there focused on securing funding for the Everglades and building partnerships between the state and FEMA. And then I came to NLC.

Why am I interested in cities? Well, there are a couple of reasons. Hurricane Ivan hit Pensacola in 2005 and pretty much wiped out whole neighborhoods in the city. The storm and ensuing devastation were horrible, but it did bring together a lot of actors in the same room to discuss rebuilding. Local leaders helped play a role in creating a renaissance in the city, and today the downtown is booming and businesses are thriving. It made me proud to watch my hometown get back up on its feet after the worst had happened. More importantly, the whole experience sparked an interest in local politics for me.

Secondly, I happened to be finishing up a degree in public administration at Samford University in Alabama right as the surrounding Jefferson County entered into bankruptcy. At that time, it was the largest municipal bankruptcy filing, and I began following how local finance.

Right, so Birmingham’s restructuring process really guided you into the world of municipal finance?

Yeah, it played a role for sure. It was an interesting process to watch as an MPA candidate. Honestly, working on Everglade issues also opened my eyes to how much a project’s execution could be improved simply by infusing more local control and directing more money to local governments. When cities are given the directive and the resources, projects just get done faster, more efficiently and with better end results. I also realized that states and the federal government can be partners to cities, but cities often have to rely on their own financing capacity bridge the gap between what they need to do on a daily basis and what they have been provided.

Interesting. Along those lines, what do you think 2017 has in store for municipal finance?

Well, that’s the million-dollar question right there. There’s some uncertainty for sure, but I don’t think we should expect any immediate or sudden changes in this lane. As you probably know, Speaker Ryan released a plan for tax reform in June, President Trump campaigned hard for corporate and personal tax reform, and Congressman Brady, the House chair of the Ways and Means Committee, says there will be a tax reform proposal. At the end of the day there are a lot of promises, but the fact of the matter remains that we haven’t seen many details as of yet.

Nonetheless, this all leads me to believe some sort of tax policy proposals will happen, just maybe not this instant. That’s what resolves us to keep pushing so hard to make sure city interests and voices are well heard at the table. We’re out there, and we are pushing to make sure the tax-exempt status of municipal bonds is protected, that state and local tax deductions remain, and we’re still working to get Chairman Goodlatte, from the House Judiciary Committee, to address marketplace fairness.

Sounds like a busy 2017. So what is your spirit city? 

This is the hard one! Is it cheesy if I go with my hometown?

No, not at all!

You know what? I have to say Chicago here. I am a food fanatic and the city of broad shoulders has the best food in my opinion. Best steak, best pizza, best everything. It’s a beautiful city with great people.

You ever go to the food festival?

No, never. I need to go, though!

Join us at the 2017 Congressional City Conference and meet Brett and the rest of your City Advocates.

brian-headshotAbout the author: Brian Egan is the Public Affairs Associate for NLC. Follow him on Twitter @BeegleME.

 

Meet Your City Energy and Environment Advocate

“[An overhaul of the EPA] is not something that can nor will happen overnight, but I think we know that it is something the new administration is interested in.” 

Every week leading up to the 2017 Congressional City Conference we’ll feature a “Meet Your City Advocate” spotlight as part of a series introducing you to NLC’s Federal Advocacy team. This week, I sat down with Carolyn Berndt, our program director for sustainability advocacy.

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Carolyn Berndt is the program director for sustainability advocacy at the National League of Cities. (Brian Egan/NLC)

Name: Carolyn Berndt
Area of expertise: Environment and Sustainability
Hometown: Winchester, Mass.

Carolyn, thanks for sitting down with me today. To kick it off, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background. Where are you from, where have you been, what have you done? 

Well, I’m from Winchester, Massachusetts, not too far from Boston.

Oh, I guess the Super Bowl went the way you had hoped.

I was wondering how long it would take me to slip a ‘Go Pats!’ into this interview. But, yes – I’m from a suburb just north of Boston, but moved down to D.C. right after college. I didn’t have a job at that point, but I knew I wanted to be in Washington. I’ve had three jobs in government relations, but I never had a personal connection to the first two. I started working with a nuclear engineering company. Fascinating topics and interesting, but not the most engaging job if you’re not devoted to all things nuclear. My second job was with the American Society of Interior Designers doing state advocacy and grassroots, and again, I just wasn’t an interior designer. Both jobs had me working in government relations and I gained an interest in public policy, so I decided to pursue a Master’s in Public Administration from American University.

Go AU.

That was when I really started to think about cities and local government. Chris Hoene, who used to be NLC’s director of research, did a guest lecture for one of my classes at American.

So Chris Hoene was like the former Brooks Rainwater [NLC’s current director of research]?

Yes, sort of. I remember sitting in class and thinking I should check out the National League of Cities. Eighteen months later I landed a job with NLC! What makes my time at NLC different from my previous jobs is that I’m passionate about my city and the neighborhood where I live. It upsets me when people rag on Washington. I understand frustrations with policy and politicians, but D.C. is my home – and it’s actually a very nice place with great people and a great community to live, work and play. I have a profound respect for local leaders and the communities they help shape every day. Everyone deserves to be proud of their city — and everyone deserves a clean and safe environment.

Well, that segues nicely into my next question: Why sustainability policy? 

I more or less fell into it. I have always been passionate about the subject, having spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid – the beach, the mountains, our national parks – and I took several environmental policy classes in undergrad and grad school. And now, as a parent, there is the basic desire to leave my children with a clean and sustainable future.

I always see cities as being ‘pragmatic environmentalists.’ We all want and need clean air and water, but from the local government perspective there are costs. I’m seeing some cities advance sustainability policies for environmental reasons, but many do it because it just makes economic sense for them. They find in the long run it’s ultimately cheaper to invest in sustainable practices now, particularly with disaster preparedness, rather than ignore it and face the higher costs later.

Interesting. So what do you think 2017 has in store for city sustainability policy?

We hope to have conversations with the new administration and Congress on where they see energy and environmental policy going. Some of the messaging has been around an “all of the above” energy strategy. On the issue of climate change, NLC and cities have been supportive of policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, like energy efficiency and renewable energy programs. I hope that climate adaptation and disaster preparedness stay priorities for the federal government. I think it’s hard to argue against being prepared for natural disasters, and cities are the first responders.

The administration has made it clear they want to overhaul the EPA, everything from programs and policies to regulations. This could have a big impact on local governments. While cities certainly have some concerns about various agency rulemakings, there are many programs at EPA that work very well for cities, such as the Brownfields program. And of course programs like the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Funds and WIFIA are important for funding water infrastructure development.

Do you see cities picking up the gauntlet in the absence of federal leadership on sustainability?

I think cities have already been leading. When I came to NLC, “sustainability” was a relatively new thing and NLC had just adopted a comprehensive sustainability resolution. But since that time, more and more cities have been leading many of the commonsense and innovative environmental policies spreading across the country. Cities will continue to lead in this space, and they’ll continue to look for a federal partner.

I feel like I might already know your answer to the next question, but what is your spirit city?

Well… I’ll always be a New Englander at heart, but I’m afraid I have to steal Matt’s answer here and say San Diego. I love being outside and I love the beach. The idea of having 75-degree perfect weather year round sounds wonderful!

Join us at the 2017 Congressional City Conference and meet Carolyn and the rest of your City Advocates.

brian-headshotAbout the author: Brian Egan is the Public Affairs Associate for NLC. Follow him on Twitter @BeegleME

Meet Your City Public Safety Advocate

“Public safety will certainly be at the forefront of many of the issues that both the new administration and Congress address.”

Every week leading up to the Congressional City Conference we will continue to feature “Meet Your City Advocate” spotlights as part of a series. This week, I sat down with Yucel (“u-jel”) Ors, program director for public safety advocacy at NLC.

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Yucel Ors is the program director for public safety advocacy at the National League of Cities. (Brian Egan/NLC)

Name: Yucel Ors
Area of Expertise: Public Safety
Hometown: Pittsburgh

Yucel, thanks for sitting down with me today. I wanted to make sure our readers got to hear from you, given the executive order of sanctuary cities last week. Before I jump into that, tell us about your background – where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and why you are passionate about cities.

I’ve lived and worked at a lot of places. My family came here from Turkey when I was younger, and we settled in Pittsburgh, so that’s ultimately home.

After high school, I went to work on Wall Street for a while until Black Monday, the market crash in ’87. I decided a career in financial markets was too risky, so I left Wall Street to earn a B.A. in Political Science at William Patterson. After college, I moved down to Alexandria to work in the Northern Virginia office for Senator Robb of Virginia for a short while, and then got a job at a law firm in Washington, D.C. as a legal assistant for regulatory and corporate clients. When my wife got a job offer in Orlando, Florida, we decided to move to the Sunshine State, where I pursued my masters in Political Science at the University of Central Florida and then took a job with the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, or APCO. After some years, APCO announced plans to open a satellite office in Washington, D.C., and I saw an opportunity. I followed them here and served as the director for their government relations office.

After that, I found myself at the National League of Cities. Cities are where things happen. Look, I’ve been a city kid my whole life. Growing up in Pittsburgh instilled an intense sense of hometown pride and that translated into a broader interest in cities. My interest in public safety is what really guided me to NLC. I spent a great deal of time with APCO working to provide first responders the communications tools they need to do their job, and that’s a big part of city life.

Right. Well along that vein, why public safety and crime prevention advocacy?

When I started at APCO, I didn’t imagine I would be this passionate about public safety. I thought my life would be working towards attaining a law degree and maybe someday be a professor at a university. And honestly, it’s largely because of my days in Lower Manhattan that I developed such a respect and interest for public safety policy, particularly in cities.

I wasn’t in New York in 2001, but I took the PATH train from Jersey City into the World Trade Center every day in my past life. Nine-eleven occurred while I was at APCO, and watching the news just brought back a flood of memories. It felt very personal. During the wake of the terror attacks there was a lot of discussion around public safety communications. My job at APCO took on a whole new meaning and became much more than a source of income. My day-to-day work suddenly had a tremendous purpose.

Thanks for sharing. That’s amazing that you have such a deep connection to the work you do. Part of the reason I wanted to interview you this week was because we’ve seen some updates in your portfolio over the past week or so. What do you think 2017 has in store for public safety policy in cities?

Public safety will certainly be at the forefront of many of the issues that both the new administration and Congress address. The biggest challenge I foresee is answering the question of what is the role of local law enforcement, and how could federal actions support or impede that role?

We’ve seen an effort to place federal immigration enforcement responsibilities on local law enforcement that could inhibit the ability of local officers to best do their job. I believe there is no such thing as a real “sanctuary city,” because no city is blocking federal enforcement agents from doing their jobs. Rather, we’re seeing duties of federal enforcement being placed on local authorities.

We can also expect criminal justice to come back up as an issue this year. As we move forward with policy changes, we need to continue providing local governments with the resources they need to continue reintegrating prisoners back into the community and limiting recidivism. That means that any solutions need to include policies on education, jobs, housing, etc.

And of course the opioid crisis is ongoing. We had major victories last year in obtaining federal funding for the epidemic, but more is definitely needed. State and local governments will need to demonstrate what they are doing with those additional resources, and highlighting the successes they’ve had on these fronts in order to secure more funding. There’s still $500 million in the air, and we don’t know if it’s going to be available in 2018.

Finally, community policing. We need to continue making sure that local governments are getting federal support to improve officer training, especially on how to deescalate situations, and have the tools needed to improve police community relations.

And of course, everyone’s favorite question, what’s your spirit city?

Oh definitely Pittsburgh. For sure.

“The ‘burgh,” so certain…

It’s not even a question. You know living in Maryland and being constantly surrounded by Ravens fans…

Makes life hard?

Very! Anytime the Steelers and Ravens play, I’m always outnumbered. But Pittsburgh is home. It’s a big city with a small hometown heart. Where else can you be surrounded by skyscrapers and still feel like you’re still on Main Street? I’ve watched it conquer many of its major past challenges, and I’m proud to call it home.

Join us at CCC and meet Yucel and the rest of your City Advocates. Visit the CCC website to register now!

brian-headshotAbout the author: Brian Egan is the Public Affairs Associate for NLC. Follow him on Twitter @BeegleME

Meet Your City Human Development Advocate

“Policy in the human development sphere is all about improving quality of life.”

With a new administration and a new Congress, the National League of Cities’ (NLC) Federal Advocacy team will be busy raising the voices of cities throughout 2017. As part of our initiative, we wanted to introduce you all to our Federal Advocacy team members and share what’s on their minds for 2017. Every week leading up to the Congressional City Conference, we will feature a “Meet Your City Advocate” spotlight as part of a series. This week, I sat down with our human development lobbyist, Stephanie Martinez-Ruckman.

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Stephanie Martinez-Ruckman is the program director for human development advocacy at the National League of Cities. (NLC photo/Brian Egan)

Hey Stephanie, thanks for sitting down with me today. I wanted to make sure I interviewed you early on in the process given the discussion around healthcare, but we’ll get to that in a minute. To get started, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where you’ve been? What you’ve done? And most importantly, why you are passionate about cities?

Well, I’m originally from D.C., and then I moved up to Massachusetts for college. I came back to Washington to work on the Hill — in both the House and the Senate. That was in the early 2000s, and it was definitely a hectic time. September 11th had just happened, and then there was the anthrax scare.

I started working in the office for the newly-elected Senator Hillary Clinton, and then went on to work for Representative Payne, whose district covered the Newark and parts of North Jersey area. I mostly focused on transportation policy.

Oh your background is starting to sound very similar to Matt’s: transportation policy, working on the Hill, Jersey. 

Ha-ha, I know – but transportation just was not my thing. I then switched over to the Senate to work with Senator Landrieu of Louisiana, and I started to focus more on health and education — topics like social security, healthcare, etcetera. So that’s where I really laid the foundation for the policy area I work on today. Senator Landrieu was very passionate about adoption issues; both her children and her husband were adopted. While working through those case issues, I deepened my interest in how federal policy impacts individuals.

I left the Hill and headed to New York to go to Columbia for graduate school – and ended up staying for 12 years! I spent some time working for the Bloomberg administration, as the policy director for the city’s workforce investment board. We were responsible for the oversight and implementation of the federal Workforce Investment Act at the local level in New York City.

It was fascinating to come from a world of working on crafting federal policy, and then be afforded the chance to see how it is implemented at the local level. You can work on a lot of fancy things in Washington, but you really measure a program or an initiative based on how well its being implemented and the results you see at the local level.

Immediately before coming to NLC, I did government relations for the New York Public Library. I dabbled into all different policy areas there because of the amazing mandate and reach of libraries, and gained a broad swath of policy experience there — including a front row seat to the city budgeting process. And then I came back to D.C.! Partially to return home, but also [because] NLC was an amazing opportunity to continue my work with cities.

Very cool! You already answered a lot of my second question just now, but why human development policy? Anything else you wanted to add?

Yeah, for me, human development — and all of the services designed to help people that fit under this umbrella term — is a bit of a nexus of all different policy areas. Your citizens need quality healthcare, great, but they also need reliable transportation to access that healthcare.

And ultimately, it’s the people connection. Policy in the human development sphere is all about improving quality of life. I think you see the fruits of labor here — perhaps more so than in most policy areas — because you see the people who benefit from the policies. That’s always been very important to me.

Yeah, definitely. Well along the lines of policy, what do you see in store for human development policy and cities in 2017? 

There are really three pieces to watch. The infrastructure bill should be coming soon, and hopefully there’s a workforce component to it. Any infrastructure investment will create jobs, but I’m also looking for a focus on training that leads to more sustained job creation with career pathways. There are people out of work, and I’d love to see how this bill could reengage and support them, even after the funding runs out. On the education front, we have the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). There may be some examination into college affordability and federal financial aid. And then the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Ah yes, the white elephant in the room.

Yes. Earlier this month, Congress passed a budget proposal instructing the committees of jurisdiction to come up with language that would repeal the ACA. And President Trump has signed an executive order on his first day in office calling for its repeal.

We are in a waiting period at the moment, but NLC has made it very clear that any repeal of the ACA must include a simultaneous replacement. We need to make sure that the financial burdens of healthcare reform don’t fall onto local governments. Whether that’s resulting in an overload of local health resources from millions of additional American’s becoming uninsured, or local healthcare initiatives losing their funding.

Twelve percent of the Center for Disease Control’s budget is appropriated through the ACA. We’re mostly talking about public health programs and vaccination programs. And there’s also grant money through the CDC that flows directly to local areas. Most of the time public healthcare is not administered by a city, but the impacts of health policy often fall on local governments. We’re following this one particularly close.

That’s really interesting about the CDC budgeting. Well, I have my favorite question next. What is your spirit city? With which city do you identify the most?

Oh, don’t judge me.

I would never.

I know it sounds cliché, but I have always been a New York City kind of a person. I’ve always wanted to live there and I had the amazing opportunity to do it. It’s a very interesting place to innovate and try things and then replicate. I think about the first lady of New York’s Thrive Initiative on mental health. New York has the financial ability to experiment with these municipal projects that, if they work, can grow to other cities.

And I mean, you have all that, and then you have great food and great theater as well.

Join us at CCC and meet Stephanie and the rest of your City Advocates. Visit the CCC website to register now!

brian-headshotAbout the author: Brian Egan is the Public Affairs Associate for NLC. Follow him on Twitter @BeegleME

Meet Your City Transportation Advocate

“My ask of the new administration is that we start putting money directly in the hands of cities – that’s where the outcomes would be the greatest.” – NLC’s Matt Colvin

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Matt Colvin is the principal associate for transportation advocacy. (Brian Egan/NLC)

With a new administration and a new Congress, the National League of Cities’ Federal Advocacy team will be busy elevating the voices of cities throughout 2017 and beyond. As part of our 2017 initiative we’re introducing our Federal Advocacy team members and sharing with you what’s on their minds for 2017. Every week leading up to the Congressional City Conference we will feature a “Meet Your City Advocate” spotlight. To kick the series off, I sat down with our transportation and infrastructure lobbyist, Matt Colvin, principal associate for transportation advocacy.

Name: Matt Colvin

Area of expertise: Transportation and Infrastructure

Federal Advocacy Committee: Transportation and Infrastructure Services

Hometown: Los Angeles

Follow on Twitter: @MatthewAColvin

Hey Matt, thanks again for sitting down with me today. To get started, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where you’ve been? What you’ve done? And most importantly, why you are passionate about cities?

Sure! I’m originally from Los Angeles, but lived with family in Barrington, Illinois after high school — it’s a suburb northwest of Chicago. I started community college out that way and then transferred to the University of San Diego where I earned a B.A. in political science and environmental studies. After moving around a bit, I wound up working on Capitol Hill for Senator Menendez and later for Congressman Sires — both represent New Jersey. I went on to serve as a federal policy manager for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership prior to joining NLC.

Why cities? Well, with the exception of the small Jamaican fishing village that I lived in while serving in the Peace Corps, I’ve lived most of my life in large cities. On top of that, serving for members of Congress — both former mayors — representing New Jersey, a state with 7 of the 10 most densely populated cities in the country, ingrained in me an interest and deep respect for city leaders and the work that they do.

So, why transportation policy?

I’ve always been a rail and cars type of guy. I even once took a train from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles.

Oh wow!

But to be honest, I didn’t see myself going down this path when I moved to D.C. The interest in transportation and infrastructure has always been there, but I saw myself headed down a career path in environmental advocacy.

I started doing energy, environment, and transportation policy work for Senator Menendez, who chairs the Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over transit. Working on the passage of the MAP-21 transportation bill for him in 2012 really sparked my interest in the issue area. Later, when an opportunity came up to staff Congressman Sires on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I jumped on it.

Transportation lets you get at the cross section of energy and the environment. These policies that you work on get mobilized in a way that not many other areas do not in the current political climate. The best part is that this line of work leads to both economically and physically healthier and stronger communities.

As a side note, the transportation policy community is refreshingly non-partisan. It very much feels like an area of broad consensus in an increasingly partisan world. We all want better infrastructure in our communities. Of course there is still disagreement about how and when things get done, but it’s nice to see that we all want things to get done.

What do you see in store for transportation policy and cities in 2017 with a new administration and Congress?

I think it’s still a bit of an unknown. The Trump Administration is talking about a trillion-dollar infrastructure program that will use tax credits to spur public private partnerships. I think it’s early to tell exactly what  his final proposal will look like, but I think it’s exciting that we just came off of a campaign in which both parties passionately discussed transportation and infrastructure.

The American Society of Civil Engineers report card gave America a D+ across all areas of infrastructure. Our infrastructure used to be the envy of the world, but we’re at a place now where bridges collapse and congestion is costing our families thousands of dollars every year and we still don’t see more federal funding to bring our infrastructure truly into the 21st century.

Congress and the administration are talking about doing something here, and we need this investment. Elaine Chao, the nominee for Secretary of Transportation, has discussed this need in her confirmation hearing. She also indicated that whatever comes down the pipeline in the next few years will likely be a mix of funding and financing tools, so I think cities should see that as a sign of hope. I also see this as a positive message that cities can bring to the Capitol Hill when they come to advocate; we should look into public private partnerships as part of the solution, but we still need that revenue.

My ask of the administration is that we start putting money directly in the hands of cities, that’s where the outcomes would be the greatest.

Outside of Washington, the intersection of transportation and technology is only going to advance in 2017. We’re going to have more and more questions and answers as to how these new technologies interact with our existing infrastructure. Whether it’s autonomous vehicles or ridesharing, it’s all pretty exciting.

Finally, a fun question, what is your spirit city? With which city do you identify the most?

San Diego. I mean for the weather alone. I think San Diego has some of the most incredible public spaces — from all of the beaches to Balboa park. But seriously, that 75-degree weather year round is pretty great.

Join us at CCC and meet Matt Colvin as well as the rest of your City Advocates. Visit the CCC website to register now!

brian-headshot About the author: Brian Egan is the Public Affairs Associate for NLC. Follow him on Twitter @BeegleME