Mayors and the Politics of the Property Tax

This post is the final installment in a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report.

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In his 2016 State of the City address, Helena, Montana, Mayor James Smith stated that “Our ability to compensate our employees from year to year depends first and foremost on property tax revenues.” (Getty Images)

Mayors have a love-hate relationship with the property tax. On one hand, it is one of the few fiscal tools they have to raise revenue for mounting needs. On the other, accessing this tax can be an uphill political battle. Given these dynamics, it was no surprise that ‘property tax’ was the hottest budget issue discussed by mayors in their 2016 State of the City speeches.

(National League of Cities)

(National League of Cities)

Tax Profile
Property tax revenues are driven by the assessed value of residential and commercial property. They typically lag the real estate market due to delays in local assessment practices. For example, the sharp drop in the real estate market that set the recession into motion did not hit property tax rolls until 2010. Cities faced several years of declining property tax revenues following 2010, even though real estate markets across the country were stabilizing. In North Ridgeville, Ohio, Mayor G. David Gillock noted that, “Our real estate tax [revenues] increased somewhat during 2011 and 2012, but due to… reevaluation in 2013, they again dropped precipitously. They are appreciating but are still about $300,000 below where they were in 2012.”

In recent years, property tax collections have begun to rebound, attributed largely to improved values catching up with collections, not necessarily rate hikes. Those with high property tax rates are cities like Bridgeport, Conneticut, or Detroit; these cities have low property values and/or high levels of local government spending as well as no access to sales or income tax.

Since the mid-1990’s, irrespective of economic conditions, the number of cities increasing property tax rates in any given year has always been about the same, about one in five. This is reflective of state- and voter-imposed restrictions on local property tax authority as well as the political challenges of raising property tax rates.

Political Challenges
In recent cases of tax increases, mayors have felt the backlash. Despite massive pension and education challenges, the city of Chicago had not had a substantial property tax rate hike in many years… until last year. Mayor Rahm Emanuel made a bold move and increased property taxes for residents and businesses, on average, about 13 percent (or $400 per year).

Given the fiscal challenges facing the city, the increase was overdue, but was not without political consequences.  Vocal opposition came strongest from the business community. A Crain’s Chicago Business columnist recently wrote that “in an action unlike any I’ve seen in decades, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to nearly 2,000 businesses in the Northwest Side’s 1st and 35th wards asking them to contact their aldermen and unite against these harmful policies.”

Property taxes have been called the scapegoats of the tax world, “a catch-all for gripes about potholes, traffic tickets and anything else that ails a local economy.” A key reason for the blatant disdain of property taxes is that the tax burden is more transparent (annual tax bill) and harder to avoid when compared with sales taxes applied at checkout or income taxes withheld from a paycheck. Case in point: earlier this year, Ferguson, Missouri, voters approved a half-cent sales tax hike for economic development but failed to garner the two-thirds needed to pass a separate property tax hike.

Undergirding much property tax angst is the continued slow and uncertain pace of economic growth. Mayors from cities as diverse as Buffalo, Baltimore, and Carson City, Nevada, touted their efforts to lower property tax burdens, stabilize property taxes and offer rebates and credits to seniors, low income families and city workers. “This year I am proposing to do even more with the creation of a property tax credit for our sworn police officers, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies who own homes in our city as their primary residence. I want to encourage more of our first responders to live in the neighborhoods they are sworn to protect,” said Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Complexities
Mayors also used their speeches to describe the complexities and potential unintended consequences of property tax reductions. While praising recent efforts to lower tax bills to more equitably balance commercial versus residential property taxes, Mayor Steven Adler of Austin, Texas, also noted, “The danger of using the wrong metric to measure whether your government is helping with affordability is not that we’re just measuring the wrong thing – it’s that measuring the wrong thing means we’re not working on what will really have an impact on affordability.” Although property tax reductions are visible, they alone are not the most impactful way to increase affordability within the city. He went on to discuss the importance of transportation, housing and workforce development.

In addition to oversimplifying solutions to complex city goals, property taxes reductions also mean less revenue for city services and the employees who provide them. “Our ability to compensate our employees from year to year depends first and foremost on property tax revenues… the Commission did not approve a cost of living adjustment for city employees for FY16,” said Mayor James Smith of Helena, Montana. “It’s a classic balancing act. It really captures the dynamic tension that exists between government and the private sector of the economy.”

How to Pay
Political challenges often keep local governments from accessing the property tax. This means that the question of how to pay still looms large. One of most common responses is to raise fees for services, which of course brings equity concerns as poorer families pay a larger share of their income for services. Some cities, like Syracuse, New York and Boston, have reengaged nonprofit tax-exempt institutions to contribute more cash and community programming to offset use of city services and provide unique benefits city residents. Some, like New Orleans and Denver, have focused on cost-cutting innovations in service delivery. In most cases, cities are using a mix of strategies to balance their budgets, provide services, tackle broad goals and meet obligations.

To learn more about the performance of the property tax and its impact on city fiscal health, don’t miss the release of NLC’s annual City Fiscal Conditions 2016 report on Thursday, October 13 at 11 a.m. EDT.

christy-mcfarlandAbout the Author: Christiana K. McFarland is NLC’s Research Director. Follow Christy on Twitter at @ckmcfarland.

Mayors Address Energy, Environmental Issues with Greater Substance

This year’s State of the Cities analysis reflects a growing gap between leading cities and the rest of the country on issues related to energy, environment, and climate change.

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Mayor Dawn Zimmer celebrated the fact that Hoboken, New Jersey, was named a Role Model City by the United Nations for their efforts to “upgrade infrastructure and prepare the city for a more resilient future.” Thinking holistically, the city was working on park projects, street trees, and zoning changes to incentivize green roofs. (Getty Images)

The last year has been monumental for anyone following environment and energy policy. A global climate change agreement was reached with a one point five degree warming target, the second US-China Low Carbon Cities Summit was held between the world’s largest polluters, and there is growing urgency from bipartisan security experts as well as global business leaders that now is the time to act.

However, not all of the news has been positive. Every month in 2016 has set new global temperature records, making 2016 a near lock to be hottest year ever before the last four months are even included. New analysis of polar ice sheets indicate that they likely melt faster than current models predict. And for all of our actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the planet is still on track to exceed our “safe” emissions budget within just eight years.

This same tension – between good news and bad, progress and procrastination, leaders and laggards – is evident in the 2016 State of the Cities Report. Each year NLC has published this report, environmental issues have received slightly wider coverage and a bit more emphasis. This year, 28 percent of the mayoral speeches we examined mentioned environment and energy issues – and the substance is truly impressive.

One consistent theme is that cities have quickly realized that solar energy is cost-effective. Nearly every city that mentioned environmental issues had a reference to a solar project that had come to town or to panels that were being installed on municipal buildings. This is just one of the many reasons that the NLC has partnered on SolSmart, an effort to designate leading solar cities and improve local solar policies nationwide.

Two mayors – Mark Gamba of Milwaukie, Oregon, and Jackie Biskupski of Salt Lake City, Utah – touted their plans to receive 100 percent of their city utilities from carbon-free sources.

Additionally, the theme of becoming a more ‘resilient’ city has gained prominence as local leaders understand that some effects of climate change are unavoidable and already occurring. It’s widely-known that NLC and its members have called on the federal government to make a greater investment in infrastructure. A more nuanced part of that request is that cities would like to be able to spend that money more wisely to address multiple environmental, social, and economic challenges.

Speaking about their recovery from devastating floods, Mayor Steve Benjamin of Columbia, South Carolina, called on the city “not only to restore [roads, bridges, water and sewer infrastructure] to what they were, but make them stronger, smarter, and more resilient.”

Mayor Dawn Zimmer celebrated the fact that Hoboken, New Jersey, was named a Role Model City by the United Nations for their efforts to “upgrade infrastructure and prepare the city for a more resilient future.” Thinking holistically, the city was working on park projects, street trees, and zoning changes to incentivize green roofs. All projects that would help the municipal sewer system function better.

Still, it is hard to celebrate the efforts of these cities without acknowledging the fact that 72 percent of the cities analyzed in the report did not provide significant coverage to any issue related to environment or energy. This does not mean that these cities aren’t acting. It does not mean that the mayor doesn’t care. But it at least represents a missed opportunity to communicate the urgency of the issue.

On September 22, widely known activist Bill McKibben published “Recalculating the Climate Math,” an article devoted to the most basic, arithmetic facts about the 1.5 degree warming goal and the emissions we can afford. His conclusion is that a “managed decline” away from fossil fuels and toward renewables and efficiency cannot wait. The unavoidable implication then, is that we need many more elected leaders to respond to the challenge, to replicate the ambitious carbon neutral goals that some have already set, to compete against one another to see who can make it first, and to support the cities that need help with the transition.

One thing is certain, city leaders still have the power to act quickly and make this happen. A week before Mayor Greg Stanton delivered his address, Phoenix adopted a series of resolutions to create a zero-waste circular economy, to maintain a 100-year supply of clean water, and to reduce emissions from buildings, transportation, and waste 80-90 percent by 2050, and the work is already underway. It’s a bold vision for a desert city that relies on air conditioning and cars, but if it works in Phoenix it can work anywhere.

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about city budgets.

About the Author: Cooper Martin is the Program Director for the Sustainable Cities Institute at NLC. Follow the program on twitter @sustcitiesinst.

Mayors: Data & Technology Critical to City Leadership

The use of data to drive decision-making in cities is continuing to grow, and the myriad uses for these data are being further incorporated into city operations.

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In their 2016 State of the City addresses, multiple mayors committed to leading smarter cities where classrooms, neighborhoods, and businesses leverage data and technology to become better connected and more productive. (Getty Images)

Data and technology are critical components of highly functioning cities. Mayors recognize this, and seek to elevate related issues – from broadband to smart cities to data-driven government and more – in order to better serve community members and create successful cities.

Cities are also using data and technology to make themselves smarter and more effective. In our State of the Cities 2016 analysis, one in five mayors devoted significant coverage to these issues in their annual addresses.

High Speed Internet

Internet and broadband are top mayoral priorities, coming in as the highest-rated area, with 22 percent of speeches touching on broadband. One of the key messages surfacing is that equity is incredibly important and cities are working to alleviate existing challenges surrounding access.

Mayors across the country noted the importance of fast, reliable internet to community success. However, access varies city to city or even between neighborhoods. In Baltimore, where 30 percent of homes lack internet connection, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake called broadband “the great infrastructure challenge of the 21st century.”

This disconnect can put poor students at risk of falling further behind in school. It can also discourage the growth of a local technology business.

“Imagine a new commitment to building a Smart City with high-speed gigabit fiber and focused neighborhood Wi-Fi that not only gives our students access to a 21st Century education, closing the homework gap, but creates an environment for a new explosion in small business investment and high-tech, knowledge economy industry,” said Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor John Tecklenburg.

Smart cities

Multiple cities — from Nashville to Kansas City, Missouri — committed to becoming smarter cities where classrooms, neighborhoods, and businesses leverage data and technology to become better connected and more productive.

In Escondido, California, Mayor Sam Abed said, “I see a future inspired by 21st century innovation to make Escondido a smart city. I see tremendous opportunities and a better future for the city that we all love and care about.”

This year, Columbus, Ohio, became the first city to win the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge. Columbus will receive $40 million, in addition to $100 million from private partners, to reshape its transportation system. “Smart Columbus will deliver an unprecedented multimodal transportation system that will not only benefit the people of central Ohio, but potentially all mid-sized cities,” said Mayor Andrew Ginther in a statement.

Data-driven government

“Data helps us make decisions. It’s a tool to help us make choices. And the more we know, the better decisions we can make,” said Mayor Andy Hafen of Henderson, Nevada.

Data is particularly useful for community wide public safety efforts. The Jersey City, New Jersey Open Data Portal is an example of a platform that allows the city to proactively provide the public with unfiltered and unbiased information on crime and other police activities. “We are trying to break down the informational barriers between government and residents in order to encourage honest dialogue aimed at increased public safety,” said Mayor Steven Fulop. These types of tools empower cities to share data with the public and track goals over time.

In Dallas, which suffered the deadliest incident for U.S. law enforcement since 9/11 this year, the city is leading on data-driven policing. “In 2015, our department’s excessive force complaints were reduced by 67 percent,” said DPD Police Chief David Brown at a press conference just a few weeks before the fatal police shooting. “And our deadly force incidents have been reduced by 45 percent. So far, this year in 2016, we’ve had four excessive force complaints. We averaged between 150 and 200 my whole 33-year career. So this is transformative.”

The use of data to drive decision-making in cities is continuing to grow, and the myriad uses for these data are being further incorporated into city operations. Furthermore, data-driven government is part and parcel of developing smart cities ready for the future.

Whether data helps city leaders make better decisions on policing, traffic management, or internal processes, the goal is to develop better services for community members. Mayors know that the broad swath of areas in cities that technology enhances grow with each passing year. In order to successfully shape this future for all of us, we can look to cities for true leadership.

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about energy and environment.

About the authors:

Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter @BrooksRainwater.

 

Trevor Langan is the Research Associate for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities.

Mayors Celebrate Diversity, Need to Address Inequities

NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities analysis found that mayors care about the need to create environments that promote equity, especially in diverse neighborhoods, and that multiple mayors set benchmark goals for diversity within their own workforces.

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Mayors often reflect on the visible changes in American demographics that they see in their communities, and they like the strength diverse communities provide to their cities. (Getty Images)

Beginning September 15, Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the history of the Latino community in the United States. Latinos contribute to strong economies, cultural vibrancy, and workforce revitalization in almost every community in America. A growing demographic group, Latinos are expected to make up almost thirty percent of the U.S. population by 2060.

For many years, Latinos have added to the essential diversity of cities. According to Pew Research Center, the Latino population is growing fastest in communities with the fewest Latinos while over half of Latinos lived in just 15 metropolitan areas in 2014.

Diversity isn’t just a buzzword, it’s an important ingredient for thriving, prosperous cities. In its State of the Cities 2016 report, the National League of Cities (NLC) found that 17 percent of mayors mentioned the importance of diversity to their cities. In his State of the City address, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said, “We draw our strength from diversity. We are a city where everyone is respected.” Diversity is what makes urban places work and thrive. Cities and their leaders are definitely taking notice, but there is more to be done.

Mayors often reflect on the visible changes in American demographics that they see in their communities, and they like the strength diverse communities provide to their cities. In fact, mayors were twice as likely this year to devote significant portions of their speeches to issues of demographics, like immigration and population growth, compared to last.

But just because a city is diverse doesn’t mean it will necessarily be more successful than less diverse cities. The promise of diversity rests on the ability of all communities – ethnic, racial, economic, or otherwise – to have an equal shot at success. In their State of the Cities analysis, NLC found that mayors spoke about the need to create environments that promote equity, especially in diverse neighborhoods. Multiple mayors set benchmark goals for diversity within their own workforces, particularly in police departments.

Diversity isn’t just important in cities, it’s important to American society as a whole. For this reason, the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society Program has facilitated conversations on developing pathways to equity and opportunity through events like our America’s Future Summit: Reimagining Opportunity in a Changing Nation. We’ve learned that opportunity comes in many forms and that achieving equity requires a cross-sector approach. Moreover, the story of Latinos is often similar to many other underrepresented communities in America – strategies for empowering Latino communities can be useful for empowering other groups.

Supporting diverse communities, including Latinos, matters for the communities themselves and for the cities in which they reside. Latino communities in particular create jobs for their communities and benefit their local economies. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Latino owned businesses grew 46.9 percent nationally from 2007 to 2012, totaling 3.3 million firms. Over the same period, the number of non-Latino owned businesses grew just 0.7 percent. Despite these impressive numbers, Latino entrepreneurs face difficulties finding necessary capital and support in the business community, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

But equity is still lacking in cities, and “we also know, however, that the single greatest way to expand opportunity is by expanding and nurturing our local and small businesses,” said Charleston, South Carolina, Mayor John Tecklenburg. NLC reported that 17 percent of mayors discussed strategies to support minority-owned businesses this year.

Cities may be diverse, but mayors must find ways to expand equity to include Latino and other communities that have immeasurable contributions to make. Today, more than ever, we must recognize the value of diversity in cities across the country and support policies that encourage equity for all.

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about data and technology.

About the Author: Haili Lewis is the Program Assistant for the Aspen Institute Latinos and Society Program. Follow the program at @AspenLatinos.

Mayors Continue Emphasis on Public Safety, New Approaches Emerging

This year’s National League of Cities analysis of State of the City speeches reaffirms that while mayors across the country continue to see public safety as a top issue, they’re employing new tactics and approaching the entire arena from a different perspective.

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In their 2016 State of the City speeches, several mayors laid out visions for continued progress in community policing, or what some call guardian policing. (Getty Images)

Alongside other core priorities for city government such as infrastructure and economic development, the nation’s mayors consistently emphasized ensuring and improving public safety, as seen in the National League of Cities’ State of the Cities 2016 report. Of note this year, several mayors focused on new or revised approaches getting underway in key areas such as community policing, diversion, reentry, and youth violence prevention.

Such approaches continue to illustrate the contributions that city governments can make to greater effectiveness and fairness in broad public safety and criminal justice efforts, in ways that complement actions by courts, county jail administrators and state corrections departments.

With police departments a primary means for cities to ensure safety – and in the context of continued tragic events and simmering or exposed tensions – several mayors laid out visions for continued progress in community policing, or what some call guardian policing. Some pointed to specific strategies to build or restore trust between police departments and residents, including Mayor John King of Covina, California, and Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, Massachusetts.  Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Andrew Ginther noted: “Bike patrols, walking crews, community liaison officers, school resource officers, social media outreach, our Diversity Recruiting Council, listening tours – these are just some of the many ways our police make every effort to engage with the communities they serve, keeping communication lines open and building trust and goodwill.”

Mayors highlighted investments in diversion and reentry programming that yield both short- and long-term payoffs, picking up on themes consistent with the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families’ (YEF Institute) resources in use by dozens of cities pursuing strategies to reduce arrest and incarceration for youth and young adults. For instance, pointing to adoption of an increasingly common tactic to reduce overuse of jails, Mayor John Tecklenburg of Charleston, South Carolina, explained that the police department “is now testing a new citation and release pilot program, designed to reduce the number of citizens incarcerated for minor offenses.”

Mayors in cities of vastly different sizes – including  Mayor Adrian Mapp of Plainfield, New Jersey; Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston; and Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C. – focused on providing better supports and services upon reentry from prisons and jails, such as access to drug-free housing, job training programs and mental health services.

Mayor Ginther of Columbus explained that city’s comprehensive reentry approach, which spans services, supports, and jobs: “We will continue to invest in Restoration Academy, which offers a second chance to restored citizens who are ready to contribute to their communities and support their families. And this year, I am pleased to announce that we will offer two classes of Restoration Academy, with one class specifically for 18- to 23-year-olds. The City of Columbus alone has hired 40 graduates to date.”

Informed by NLC’s longstanding support for the California Gang Prevention Network and successor initiative the National Forum for Youth Violence Prevention, a number of cities continue to launch, expand and improve strategies to steer young people into productive pursuits and away from gangs and guns. Mayors in cities including Baltimore; Evanston, Illinois; Jersey City, New Jersey; Seattle; and Nashville, Tennessee, referred to city adoption of a variety of methods. These included fielding outreach workers, development of comprehensive violence prevention plans, and hospital-based violence intervention programs to reduce retribution. Mayor Tom Barrett of Milwaukee summed up a common view when he said, “Our emphasis will be on youth development and preventing youth violence because we need to ensure that every young person can achieve their goals and build a successful future.”

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about data and technology.

Andrew Moore About the Author: Andrew Moore is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Connections in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education & Families. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AndrewOMoore.

Mayors Aren’t Just Talking About Housing and Homelessness – They’re Doing Something About It

For the third straight year, mayors have identified housing as a fundamental challenge facing their communities, according to our 2016 State of the Cities report.

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Recognizing the unique role that housing plays in the fabric of cities, 40 percent of mayors in our sample dedicated significant portions of their State of the City speeches to the issue. (michaeljung/Getty Images)

Nearly a decade since the housing and financial crisis, one of the cruel ironies continuing to grip many cities is the lack of affordable housing – even as they continue to struggle with large numbers of foreclosed or abandoned properties.

To address both of these issues in their State of the City speeches, the mayors of Baltimore and Nashville highlighted recent efforts. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake emphasized the city’s Vacants to Value initiative that has quadrupled demolition funding to $100 million over 10 years. “It makes me proud that Vacants to Value was recognized by the Clinton Global Initiative, and honored by the Financial Times as an original idea that has made life better for people living and working in cities,” said the mayor.

In Nashville, Mayor Megan Barry touted the launch of a Metro Property Donation Process for housing development. “Nearly 60 infill lots will be available for housing development throughout Davidson County. More than half of them are in the urban core. For the first time, we’re making Metro’s own property available for affordable housing,” said Mayor Barry.

The need for affordable housing has been underscored by an increased prevalence of “tent cities” in many communities. While some cities have attempted to address homeless encampments through ordinances banning sleeping or lying in public spaces, others such as Indianapolis have taken the route of proactively outlining how they will handle them.

In Charleston, South Carolina, Mayor John Tecklenburg has recognized that a part of the city’s solution involves improving access to existing housing stock owned or managed by private landlords. The mayor partnered with NLC to recruit landlords to house homeless veterans, and in his State of the City address he said his goal was to bring the area’s encampments to “a humane but clear and final end in the near future.”

Recognizing the need to take action on homelessness in a strategic manner, 883 local leaders across 45 states and the District of Columbia have joined the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness. As a result of the increased focus, veteran homelessness has fallen 47 percent nationwide since 2010. Most notably, for the first time in history, federal partners have defined what it means to effectively end veteran homelessness and certified that 29 communities and two states have achieved those benchmarks. Last Friday, Austin was announced as the most recent city.

Like Mayor Tecklenburg, Austin, Texas, Mayor Steve Adler has also been actively involved in the recruitment of private landlords. Acknowledging the need to stop gentrification or forced displacement, he used his annual State of the City address to stress the need to develop housing “in a way that will actually achieve opportunities for permanent affordability.”

Our 2016 State of the Cities report found mayors acknowledging the unique needs facing veterans as a whole. When analyzing specific demographics mentioned in speeches, 20 percent discussed veterans. Notably, seniors emerged as another frequently mentioned special needs population. This should not be surprising, since we are now five years in to the “silver tsunami” in which 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 years old every day.

Given the central role that affordable housing plays in the health and vitality of a city, it is easy to see why the topic is a consistent feature in mayoral addresses. However, given the depth of the affordable housing crisis in all communities, mayors are taking innovative and strategic approaches to address the issue by focusing on key demographics. As recovery from the Great Recession continues, the cautious optimism expressed by mayors in all regions of the country is well grounded.

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about public safety.

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.

Mayors Link Education, Workforce Training to Economic Development

As our 2016 State of the Cities report shows, mayors across the country are becoming increasingly aware of the link between a strong local economy and investment in programs that help residents build workforce skills.

In Newark, New Jersey, over 10,000 residents were engaged in meaningful opportunities linked to learning and workforce development – including exposure to coding, robotics, afterschool assistance and employment training – through the city’s Centers of Hope program. (Miahi Andritoiu/Getty Images)

Economic development and thriving communities are a top priority for mayors across the nation. As seen in the National League of Cities’ 2016 State of the Cities report, elected officials are underscoring the need for access to educational opportunities as well as pathways and training to reach their local economic and workforce goals.

“To have a resilient economy, we must invest in our workforce development, small businesses and neighborhoods – and most of all, we have to invest in public education,” said Providence, Rhode Island, Mayor Jorge Elorza.

Cities across the country are linking education and workforce development. In Richardson, Texas, and Tucson, Arizona, new partnerships are being forged between businesses and higher education institutions. And the cities of  Charleston, South Carolina, and St. Paul, Minnesota are building more robust and workforce-centered summer and expanded learning opportunities.

“We cannot expect our existing businesses to grow if we are not providing well-suited employees, and we will continue to work with our local schools and institutes of higher education to ensure we are creating opportunities,” said Covina, California, Mayor Kevin Stapleton.

For the first time, workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher make up a larger proportion of the current workforce than those with a high school diploma or less, based on the latest research out of the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. The research shows that, since the recession, the U.S. economy added 8.4 million jobs which require a bachelor’s degree or higher as compared to the only 80,000 jobs for those with a high school diploma or less. Research also shows the importance of continued learning to promote educational attainment.

Numerous studies have shown that afterschool programs have a beneficial effect on factors that influence high school completion such as a student’s attendance, behavior and academic performance. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning conducted a meta-analysis of 68 studies of afterschool programs and found that, when compared to their non-participating peers, students participating in a high quality afterschool program demonstrated improvements in a number of areas, including better school attendance.

Cities are utilizing a variety of resources, including existing summer and out-of-school time programming, to engage citizens of all ages to not only learn subjects but to build employable skill sets. In Newark, New Jersey, over 10,000 residents were engaged in meaningful opportunities linked to learning and workforce development – including exposure to coding, robotics, afterschool assistance and employment training – through the city’s Centers of Hope program. Hire Newark Employment Ready Boot Camp, one of the many offerings at the Centers of Hope, connected employers with individuals to work on skill development and provided a bridge to training and employment. In St. Paul, Minnesota, over 20,000 youth were connected to over 90 different organizations with various levels of exposure to learning through the Sprockets out-of-school time network, and the city has discovered the link between programming and increased achievement in schools.

Cities are also forging partnerships that combine the expertise of local colleges and universities as well as local employers to meet workforce needs. Austin, Texas, looks to link education and workforce building in a new strategic plan centered around economic needs while also addressing barriers to college completion. In Tucson, Arizona, the city partnered with the University of Arizona’s Tech Launch Arizona and formed a Commercialization Advisory Network of 750 industry professionals available to guide tech entrepreneurs in the city. The program has already received 200 patents, executed 86 licenses, and created 12 new startups in biotech, materials science, software and publishing.

As cities continue to innovate and build thriving communities, NLC supports these efforts through peer-sharing, technical assistance and resource creation. Look for more education and workforce solutions as the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families takes on this burgeoning body of work beginning this fall. For more information, contact Dana D’Orazio at DOrazio@nlc.org.

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about housing.

About the Author: Dana D’Orazio is the Program Manager for Postsecondary Education in the National League of Cities (NLC) Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

Mayors Nationwide Are Focused on Improving the Health and Vitality of Cities

“The cost to business, the healthcare industry, and our communities makes fitness not only a personal and humanitarian issue, but also an economic imperative.”

Thirty-two percent of mayors discussed the need to invest in bicycle-friendly infrastructure including bike share programs, sidewalks, walking paths. (Getty Images)

Thirty-two percent of mayors discussed the need to invest in bicycle-friendly infrastructure including bike share programs, sidewalks, walking paths. (Getty Images)

The National League of Cities’ State of the Cities 2016 Report found that mayors across the country from cities of all sizes are taking action to ensure that residents have the resources they need to live a healthy life where they live, learn, work and play. These mayors recognize the connection between the health of their residents and the economic prosperity and vitality of their cities. As such, they are using their respective State of the City addresses to outline a vision for healthier communities.

In his 2016 State of the City address, Harlingen Mayor Chris Boswell announced that the Harlingen City Commission in Texas recently passed a resolution to create a multi-sector advisory board that includes hospitals, educational institutions and businesses to steer the city into a healthier future. “The cost to business, the healthcare industry, and our communities makes fitness not only a personal and humanitarian issue, but also an economic imperative,” Mayor Boswell said.

Mayor Jim Darling of McAllen, Texas, riding a bike before delivering his 2015 State of the City address. (photo: City of McAllen)

Mayor Jim Darling of McAllen, Texas, riding a bike before delivering his 2015 State of the City address. (photo: City of McAllen)

Numerous studies have shown the links between chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity and the availability of health promoting resources within communities, such as quality schools, employment opportunities, full-service grocery stores and safe spaces for physical activity. Mayors recognize this, and are actively connecting critical city programs, policies and practices to improve the quality of life in the communities they serve.

“From building health facilities in income-challenged neighborhoods, to increasing health education in the schools, to building sidewalks and bike trails and senior wellness centers. We are changing the culture of health in this community,” said Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City.

Mayors are also changing the way they think about traditional city issues such as infrastructure and public safety. Infrastructure has consistently ranked among the top five issues addressed by mayors in State of the City speeches since 2014. This year, mayors emphasized infrastructure as a key tool to improve public health. Thirty-two percent of mayors discussed the need to invest in bicycle-friendly infrastructure including bike share programs, sidewalks, walking paths.  Safe and active transportation options were also highlighted by mayors as key infrastructure investments with each topic mentioned in 15 percent or more of speeches.

Biking was the second-most talked about infrastructure topic during this year's mayoral State of the City addresses.

Bikes were the second-most talked about infrastructure topic during this year’s mayoral State of the City addresses.

In Fayetteville, Arkansas, Mayor Lioneld Jordan spoke about his city’s active transportation plan. “Fayetteville is committed to developing an inclusive multi-modal transportation system to create a ‘livable transportation network’ of bicycle and sidewalk infrastructure. We believe that by combining pedestrian and bicycle planning into active transportation planning will yield the maximum return on the public’s investment and lead to a more healthy and vibrant community.”

Other cities like New York and Seattle outlined plans for achieving Vision Zero, a commitment to improve pedestrian and bicycle transportation safety and ultimately to eliminate traffic fatalities.

It is encouraging to see that mayors are increasingly, in the words of Petersburg, Virginia, Mayor W. Howard Myers, “making health and wellness a priority in the city.”

To further these efforts, NLC is committed to building the capacity of city leaders to promote a culture of health. Over the next three years, with generous funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families will work to engage mayors and city leaders in problem-solving sessions, trainings and peer-learning networks to ensure health is a key factor in their decisions across a range of issues, including education, housing and community development. More information on the YEF Institute’s efforts can be found here.

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about education.

About the Author: Alyia Gaskins is a Senior Associate for Health and Community Wellness at NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families. Follow Alyia on Twitter at @a_gaskins412.

Mayors Say America’s Infrastructure Needs an Upgrade

In addition to facing the deteriorating state of America’s existing infrastructure, city leaders are faced with the added complexity of investing in new, smarter infrastructure that can support and augment a 21st century economy.

(Getty Images)

“There is something wrong with our infrastructure.” said Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, in his state of the city address. “We need to do something now.” (Getty Images)

The Challenge

The United States’ infrastructure is in deplorable condition. Several factors — including a significant decline in federal investment, less predictable funding from states, and the pending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund — have contributed to this problem, putting more of the onus on state and local policymakers to find the cash for these projects in already challenging times. This has left the U.S. with what is commonly referred to as an “infrastructure deficit” or a significant gap between what we spend on infrastructure and what we need to spend to get our existing infrastructure up to par.

Figures on this growing price tag vary, but they are daunting any way you slice them. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s infrastructure a D+, and estimates that approximately 3.6 trillion dollars would need to be invested by 2020 in order to get the nation’s infrastructure to a good place.

Cities Take Responsibility for Providing the Essentials and Investing in the Future

There is no denying that infrastructure is important. We need roads and bridges to move people and goods. We need water to survive. We need internet access to function in the 21st century economy.  City leaders recognize the essential nature of these services, and how critical they are to building and maintaining a strong, functional community.

To that end, it’s no surprise that NLC’s analysis of state of the city addresses showed that almost half (48 percent) of the leaders sampled mentioned infrastructure priorities. Additionally, infrastructure is among the top five issues consistently mentioned in mayors’ state of the city speeches. City leaders addressed a wide array of types of infrastructure – 45 percent of the speeches in our sample addressed roads, 32 percent addressed bicycle infrastructure 23 percent addressed sewers or wastewater infrastructure, 22 percent addressed internet and broadband infrastructure, and 18 percent addressed buses.

While transportation infrastructure is still at the top of city officials’ minds, this data suggests that policymakers are beginning to pay more attention to other important types of infrastructure, such as internet connectivity and water and sewers.

Mayor Michael Brown of Grand Forks, North Dakota, underscored the importance of generating revenue for both new projects and maintenance of existing infrastructure alike, asserting that the community “must focus on maintenance and future investment now so we perpetuate a strong economy.” In order to generate local funding, and retain local control, the city administration will facilitate a community conversation about a new infrastructure sales tax.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer of San Diego also expressed a desire to see more of the city’s tax dollars go toward community improvements, encouraging support of a ballot measure so that “voters can guarantee funds for neighborhood infrastructure decades into the future.”

Mayors of two different cities in Indiana, Greenwood and Nappanee, revered the successes of their Tax-Increment Finance (TIF) districts. Mayor Mark Myers of Greenwood highlighted the road improvements and job creation made possible by two different TIF districts in his community. Mayor Larry Thompson of Nappanee lauded the long term economic benefits enabled by the city’s TIF, explaining that the “community’s consolidated Tax Increment Finance (TIF) areas provide an added revenue source that allows additional funding for infrastructure and improvements that contribute to more economic-growth-added amenities.”

Infrastructure of the Future

In addition to facing the deteriorating state of America’s existing infrastructure, city leaders are faced with the added complexity of investing in new, smarter infrastructure that can support and augment a 21st century economy.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake acknowledged this, asserting that “a robust broadband infrastructure is absolutely vital to our city’s future.” She proposed that “creating such a network is the great infrastructure challenge of the 21st century.”

Many other city leaders across the nation agree with this sentiment, and have broadened to scope of the infrastructure discussion beyond transportation and water, to include broadband internet service. Mayor Will Sessoms of Virginia Beach, Virginia, highlighted the economic implications associated with broadband access:

“Connectivity is more than meeting our growing regional transportation needs. It’s ensuring our excellent public schools and institutions of higher learning provide educational pathways into high-demand careers. It’s ensuring that growing industries bring jobs and services to Virginia Beach. It’s ensuring the broadband capacity that our businesses need for global commerce and 21st century job growth.”

City leaders in Lexington, Kentucky, are also focused on economic competitiveness, recognizing that an important step to branding Lexington a 21st century city and encouraging economic prosperity is becoming a gigabit city. Mayor Lioneld Jordan of Fayetteville, Arkansas, announced the initiation of a Broadband Strategic Plan, and reinforced the importance of digital inclusion and access to online learning and job banks for all the city’s residents.

In addition to keeping up with the needs of older “hard” infrastructure, local leaders are recognizing the importance of 21st century “smart” infrastructure and taking the initiative to make sure that their communities remain competitive.

Infrastructure Matters

While it often struggles to rank among more exciting political issues, it is clear from our State of the Cities 2016 analysis that city leaders understand the importance of infrastructure. It moves us from place to place, gives us access to information, carries goods, and ensures that we have access to water. It keeps our cities running efficiently, ensures their competitiveness in the global market and enables them to attract new talent and businesses.

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about health care.

About the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Principal Associate for Urban Innovation in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.

State of the City Speeches Reveal Push for Inclusive Economic Development

This year’s National League of Cities analysis of State of the City speeches reaffirms that mayors are optimistic about the growth of their local economies, and also that cities are developing economic development agendas to ensure this prosperity is widespread.

Mayor Emily Larson of Duluth, Minnesota, said in her speech, “We intend to expand the number of local businesses in our purchasing pool, and make renewed efforts to ensure that local area businesses know about bid opportunities. We’ll lead an effort to identify local vendors (particularly minority and women-owned businesses) who want to be notified by the city about purchasing opportunities. And then we’ll mentor those businesses on how to navigate the city’s contracting process.” (Getty Images)

Mayor Emily Larson of Duluth, Minnesota (pictured above), said in her speech, “We intend to expand the number of local businesses in our purchasing pool… we’ll lead an effort to identify local vendors who want to be notified by the city about purchasing opportunities, and then we’ll mentor those businesses on how to navigate the city’s contracting process.” (Getty Images)

It makes sense that mayors are feeling positive about the state of their cities. Municipal budgets in many regions are returning to pre-Recession levels. Jobs gains and business growth are on the rise. Overall, crime is down, and local housing markets are improving. However, recent studies about the income inequality and socioeconomic disparity in cities are worrisome, and likely the driving force behind the mayoral push we’re seeing for more equity and inclusion, particularly in economic development.

More than half (55 percent) of the mayors referenced recent job gains as an economic win for their cities. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Mayor Kip Holden said, “Today, we’re at a record level of jobs in our parish. I could tell you about the more than 7,000 jobs created, or the $327 million in new payroll.” Muriel Bowser, Mayor of Washington, D.C., acknowledged local employment growth reached 1,000 new jobs in her city. Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville, Massachusetts, touted that the workforce in his city grew by 15 percent in the last year.

At the same time, mayors of nearly one third (30 percent) of cities described workforce development efforts to help fill these new employment opportunities, often with the goal of inclusive job readiness. As San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer explained in his speech, “The impact of this skills gaps is particularly harsh on low income communities – especially for our young adults.” Apprenticeships and on-the-job training, vocational programs, and alternative education were put forth by mayors as policy solutions that will help level the playing field in terms of accessing well-paying jobs in their communities. Columbus, Ohio, Mayor Andrew Ginther summarized this approach well by saying, “[A] college degree is not the only road to the middle class. There are many different paths to success.”

A large number of state of the city speeches also highlight the strength of local business environments, and feature city programs proactively ensuring minority and female small business owners are thriving in this period of growth. Overall, business growth was mentioned by a third (33 percent) of mayors, and 22 percent of speeches highlighted local small businesses. In particular, mayors shared how their cities are becoming more business-friendly by streamlining processes and providing more business services online, such as business license applications. In Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Stephen Benjamin shared in his speech, “We will be expanding our online offerings for business — where now, for the first time ever, business licenses can be acquired through our city’s website, and soon, the entire building permit process will be available in a single, seamless online system.”

In this current climate where businesses are opening and expanding, mayors are cognizant that all businesses should have an equal chance at success. That’s why several cities are implementing procurement programs that encourage local businesses to apply for city contracts. Mayor Emily Larson of Duluth, Minnesota, said in her speech, “We intend to expand the number of local businesses in our purchasing pool, and make renewed efforts to ensure that local area businesses know about bid opportunities. We’ll lead an effort to identify local vendors (particularly minority and women-owned businesses) who want to be notified by the city about purchasing opportunities. And then we’ll mentor those businesses on how to navigate the city’s contracting process.”

In Jersey City, New Jersey, Mayor Steven Fulop noted the city’s new Office of Diversity and Inclusion would spearhead similar efforts to assist minority and women-owned businesses with accessing city contacts. Mayor Fulop said in his speech, “It is our hope that this initiative will encourage the growth of our minority and women-owned businesses, while also working to foster inclusive neighborhoods and increase the diversity of the city’s small businesses.”

As the 2016 State of the Cities report describes, these mayoral speeches help forecast the future priorities of cities. It’s welcomed news that so many local economic development agendas are giving attention to equity and inclusion. It is our hope that even more cities join this movement and strive to do what Syracuse, New York, Mayor Stephanie Minor calls “creat[ing] a concentration of opportunity to combat our concentration of poverty.”

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about infrastructure.

About the Author: Emily Robbins is Principal Associate for Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter @robbins617.