The bankruptcy of ideas among America’s urban leaders is on full view this week as the U.S. Conference of Mayors meets in New York City. The message big city mayors have chosen to send to the American people is anemic and uninspiring: They want more “federal” money and are disappointed that the President and Congress have failed to deliver new urban spending programs that were promised in the campaign, amplified during the transition and scripted in the President Clinton’s February 17 State of the Union address.
Behind the scenes, it’s a somewhat different view — though still more managerial than inspirational. Nearly two-thirds of the agenda at this week’s meeting deals with the federal mandates — what a former Scottsdale mayor called the “shift and shaft” approach to federal policy making, where the federal government shifts new responsibilities on local government without new funding.
Examples abound: compliance with rigid federal environmental regulations which require, for example, Dayton, Ohio to test for pesticides used only in Hawaii to protect pineapple crops; the cost of implementing the recently-passed Motor Voter Act which permits citizens to register to vote at welfare centers and other public places; implementation of the Americans for Disabilities Act, which requires spending to make public places accessible by the handicapped regardless of local circumstances.
While many mayors agree with the substance of these federal laws, they feel the level of government that passes a new law should pay for it. Mandates, they say, are “secret taxes” costing the cities hundreds of billions of dollars.
Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, the former mayor of Boise, is now in Congress where he has introduced legislation to require the federal government to pay cities and counties for the cost of new responsibilities that federal laws and regulations shift to state and local governments. The mayors are now preparing a full court press to reduce the impact of secret taxes.
This is an important issue, to be sure. Reason: Politicians in Washington are bleeding off resources of the cities that could otherwise be used to target the unique problems at the grassroots, where all problems are ultimately solved.
But money alone won’t fix what ails most of America’s big cities. Real problems: a vanishing middle class workforce, loss of tax base, schools that do not produce employable graduates, pollution, and unsafe streets burdened by drug trade, gang violence and gridlock.
These are not problems that will be solved by more federal money or even by rolling back unfunded mandates.
What the mayors and their staff organizations need to address are the requirements of 21st century cities — cities that are comfortable for residents, attractive to visitors and efficient and productive for entrepreneurs and other wealth creating institutions — and how to get there.
Until mayors pay attention to these fundamental issues of urban design and purpose, Americans will continue to vote with their feet by moving to the suburbs and to the nation’s non-metro urban areas, a trend already underway.