Local governments cry out for a policy voice


CHICAGO -- Mad as hell and unwilling to take it any more, leaders of the nation's counties and cities gathered in Chicago November 13 and 14 for the first-ever national convocation of America's local governments.

All year long, the officials complained, they've stood by helplessly as Congress, with scarcely a word of consultation, prepared deep cuts in programs vital to them and their communities.

And it's not just in Washington, or in White House-Capitol Hill budget negotiations, that local government leaders feel denied a voice or a seat at the table. When the National Governors' Association and other state leaders met in Cincinnati in October to discuss ways to curb federal power, mayors and county leaders asked to attend. But they were told they weren't welcome, except as nonparticipating observers.

NTC The top demand from the Chicago meeting, in a joint statement by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties and National League of Cities, was for an early summit on federalism. Participants, they said should include the president, Congress, governors and state legislators meeting jointly with local government leaders.

It remains to be seen whether, or how quickly, such a summit will occur. The power of the purse, not to mention media-focused power, may make it fairly easy for Washington to ignore the request. Indeed, most of the national media ignored the Chicago meeting and its manifesto for national federalism discussions.

But logic does seem on the mayors' and county officials' side. Across the world, "the United States is seen as having one government," noted National Association of Counties President Doug Bovin, a Delta County commissioner in Michigan. But local officials, he charged, "have been shut out of the decision making" so that the time is overdue for "unified discussions within this one government."

Cities and counties are no strangers to stringency and re- adaptation, said Seattle's Mayor Norman Rice, head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Local governments have had to deal with declining federal aid since the last half of Jimmy Carter's presidency, he noted:

"We were managing budgets, collaborating, finding new partners, restructuring, right-sizing, way before the 1994 elections. Now we need to take our rightful place in the national debate."

How clear and consistent would local governments' voice be? Would localities take the harsh medicine of merger, eliminating some of the country's tens of thousands of tiny or overlapping jurisdictions? Would they be open to regional tax-base sharing to soften today's harsh intraregional inequities? Commissioner Sam Petitto of suburban Macomb County, outside beleaguered Detroit, sought -- unsuccessfully -- to strike even the mildest call for "regional collaboration" from the conference manifesto.

Community partnerships

The delegates did approve, however, an innovative idea, conceived by Seattle's Mayor Rice, for a nationwide system of "community partnerships for economic investment." Instead of a top-down federal program, communities would voluntarily assemble their stakeholders -- citizens, business, educational institutions, local governments -- to create their own consensus on investment strategies.

The community stakeholders would first work to tap broad local bases of support. Then they'd seek supplementary assistance from state and federal officials by making a convincing case for physical infrastructure that would generate economic development, and for human investment to make people less dependent and more job-ready. One federal "lead agency" would be selected to coordinate assistance from transportation to homeless aid to community development.

The process would resemble the 1994 scramble to be designated enterprise zones. Even in communities that failed to "win," their efforts to marshal resources and forge broad coalitions is having lasting effect. Says Mayor Rice: "National problems must be solved from the bottom-up, with support to local efforts from the federal and state governments."

There could be a sharp competitive edge to community partnerships, the mayor says: "The more local collaboration and positive connections, the more the federal money should flow." One of the explicit national objectives should be encouraging communities "to act collaboratively within their metropolitan regions."

There is no guarantee this could work. Current trends may pre-empt every flexible dollar -- federal or state -- for entitlements, prisons, Medicaid and schools. Federal budget cuts aimed at cities and the poor may preclude new experiments. Maybe for all the praise of local initiative, we'll retreat to top-down dictation -- whether by a Republican Congress, a Democratic president, a governor or legislature.

But the growth of a collective backbone in our city and county governments provides a shard of hope. And right now, a little hope for America's communities is very welcome.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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