Funding infrastructure highest mayoral priority, but social issues rise

BY SourceMedia | MUNICIPAL | 06/23/22 01:19 PM EDT By Connor Hussey

Funding the high demand for infrastructure projects is the highest priority for America?s mayors as they deal with years of backlogs and now larger budget capacities because of increased federal dollars.

But with all of this new money, mayors are beginning to think about infrastructure investing in new ways as public safety and affordable housing issues have also risen on the public's priority list.

That?s according to The National League of Cities? 2022 State of Cities report that analyzed the speeches delivered between October 2021 and April 2022.

"We are using an equity lens to strategically invest in programs, services and infrastructure that will help us along our path to full recovery in a way that will make a difference in the quality of life for every single Tusconian," Tucson, Arizona, Mayor Regina Romero said.

Clarence Anthony, chief executive and executive director of the NLC, said that by ?recognizing a dire need to fix our roads and bridges, repair our water systems and close the digital divide," mayors made clear that funding infrastructure demands was "their number one priority" this year.

"Rebuilding communities doesn't stop with infrastructure," Anthony said.

Infrastructure occupied 36% of policy areas mentioned in speeches, with economic development taking up 33% and budgets and management 23% and 18% on public safety.

?I look at the State of the Cities as an accountability document,? said Easthampton, Massachusetts, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle in a webinar discussing the report. ?For me and my administration, we have what has to happen, where we are now and where we're going.?

Mayor Victoria Woodards of Tacoma, Washington, conducts a public survey every year to hear how the public feels about certain initiatives and feels a strong sense of urgency in trying to respond to them.

?Five or six years ago, you would have talked about infrastructure, that infrastructure was the number one priority,? Woodards said. ?But what has risen to the top for us this year was really around safety, homelessness and affordable housing, partially because you can see and feel those things all the time,? she added. ?With infrastructure, unless you're driving down a road with a lot of potholes, you unfortunately don't always appreciate it until it doesn't work.?

They also allow members of the Tacoma community to participate and understand how the city balances its budget and understand when the city is forced to cut costs, which is an initiative they borrowed from the City of San Jose, California.

Tacoma received $30 million in federal funds and has already allocated 30% of it to go toward homeless services, which Woodard said is a ?huge issue.?

But while these one-time federal stimulus funds may be of assistance in the short term, the city may still be undergoing budget cuts due to Tacoma?s tax revenue base?s inability to keep up with expenses.

?We are facing a $20 million shortfall because revenues are just not keeping up with expenses,? Woodard said, adding that salary costs, healthcare and rising costs of steel and other resources only exacerbate these shortfalls.

?That's just another way to engage the community to understand that while we, while we cannot print money in our basements to fill all of these gaps, we are addressing not just the crime rates but some of the smaller priorities,? Woodard said. ?While every city is different, every community in the city is different and this gives them an opportunity to focus on something specific to their community.?

Mayors around the country are seeing more civic engagement.

?As a student of public budgeting and financing, I'm very pleased to see more involvement of the public and the community in municipal budgeting and decision making,? said Farhad Omeyr, program director, center for city solutions at the NLC.

In Easthampton, Massachusetts, a town of 16,000, cross departmental work has always been vital to the work that they do on the local level, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said, but they?ve taken those steps even further.

?We've had some major initiatives in the city that we really pivoted because we heard what the residents are looking for in the business community,? LaChapelle said.

It also helps ground some of the policy discussions that have come up in recent years in their city?s budget process.

?For those who are calling to defund the police, being a part of these processes, helps them to understand that what they're calling for, we're asking for more transparency, better relationships, more training, that actually costs more money,? LaChapelle said.

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