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Local governments seek more federal aid for cities

For Trenton, N.J., Mayor Douglas Palmer, the greatest nation in the world is a donation.

At least, that’s how Palmer explained the need for federal funds for local cities on Monday afternoon at the 13th annual David N. Dinkins Leadership and Public Policy Forum at the School of International and Public Affairs.

Palmer was recounting a riddle that a local resident once posed to him—the resident asked him what the greatest nation in the world was. Palmer said he didn’t know the answer, and the resident replied, “A donation.”

“We want a donation back to the cities so we can invest and create the jobs that are so needed in our country,” he said, explaining the importance of ensuring that sufficient federal money is given to cities amid the country’s economic turbulence.

Palmer’s sentiments were echoed by a host of other city politicians and scholars at Monday’s forum. The event—named after the 106th mayor of New York City and current SIPA professor David N. Dinkins—featured two panels of speakers who analyzed the impact of President Barack Obama’s, CC ’83, policies on the economic challenges facing municipalities in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

The two panels—the first focusing on Philadelphia, Nassau County, and Trenton, and the second on New York City—examined the effects of Obama’s economic stimulus package as they pertain to those metropolitan areas. This $787 billion stimulus package, signed into law last February, was intended to bolster the economy and prevent the re-emergence of the finance industry’s panic in the wake of the credit crisis of the previous fall.

Panelists focused on several components of the package, including financial support for federal infrastructure, health care, education, and small businesses. And while they agreed that the package was critical in order to foster growth in these areas, there still remains much room for improvement as cities continue to face a slew of economic problems, many panelists said.

“We have huge issues facing us and we are going to continue to need federal support. We can’t just say that the stimulus is over and let’s move on,” said Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City. “The fact that businesses had laid off many millions of people and they were able to do more with less … That’s the reality of this.”

A central issue plaguing cities in need of stimulus money is the complexity of federalism, panelists explained. The vast majority of stimulus money has been allocated to state governments, which can then distribute this money to cities throughout the state. There is often a lag as cities wait to receive this desperately-needed money, and some cities do not receive enough due to the state’s unequal distribution of money. In response to this problem, panelists called for more direct means of providing federal money to cities.

“We’re not asking for the Fed to write a big check and send us money,” said Michael A. Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia. “What we’re asking for is a new relationship with the federal government so that cities are where the action is, and cities are what will bring this country back,” he said.

Some panelists pointed out that there are direct numbers to prove this disparity between money allocated to the state versus the city.

“Instead of 80 percent to the state and 20 to the cities, let’s make it fifty-fifty, or fifty-five to us, forty-five to them,” Palmer said.

Tom Suozzi, former Nassau County Executive, called for federal government investment in a range of areas that would specifically benefit cities. He discussed the need in local governments for Medicaid, education, and public safety direct subsidies, as well as investment in green technology. These developments would counterbalance the contraction that would otherwise take place when taxes are raised or jobs and services are cut.

Congressman Charles Rangel, who represents Northern Manhattan, asked “What good is economic recovery if we don‘t have people to work and restore those dreams that made America what she is?” Rangel, emphasizing the imperativeness of education, continued, “What have we lost as a country if we don’t have the students and work force prepared to meet the technical demands that we have to compete with in the future?”

And though panelists praised the stimulus packaging for helping to revive the economy and end the recession, some said that the recession is not truly over for all Americans.

“The 10.6 percent [unemployment] immediately starts to double when it comes to black workers; same for Latino workers—and those are the workers that are most at risk,” said David Jones, CEO and president of the Community Service Society of New York. “You have many people who are out of work, whose unemployment rates remain at the numbers of the Great Depression in the black communities.”

In response to this problem, Jones and others called for such measures as tax credits, the maintenance of summer jobs, and collaboration among cities including New York City, Detroit, and Newark.

“When we look at New York City’s competitiveness overall, what makes it such a great city, it’s clear that talent is our greater asset,” said Robert C. Lieber, NYC Deputy Mayor for Economic Development. “And in order to really excel going forward, we need to continue to really invest in our people.”

kim.kirschenbaum@columbiaspectator.com

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