Several of America's largest cities have new mayors as of this week. Chief executives took the oath of office in New York, Atlanta, St. Paul, Minn., Pittsburgh, and Detroit. For Minneapolis, Sharon Sales Belton is not only its first female mayor, but its first black mayor.
As these urban leaders look to the new year, they face significant challenges.
Some are unique to the city. In Atlanta, for example, Mayor Bill Campbell is taking over as a federal trial threatens to shake up the city's political and business establishment. The trial focuses on charges of corruption involving the Hartsfield Airport project and a much-hearalded program to include minority-owned businesses.
Other challenges are more common. In New York, newly inaugurated Rudolph Giuliani must grapple with a potential $1.7 billion budget deficit. His approach has a direct bearing on another concern: crime, and New York's ability to provide the police and judicial resources needed to deal with it. In Detroit - which faces a potential deficit of $88.5 million and has a high crime rate, and whose business base continues to erode - Mayor Dennis Archer emphasized the need for individual residents to take more responsibility for helping to reduce drug trafficking and crime.
These issues also figure prominently in a report released yesterday by the National League of Cities. A survey of municipal officials from cities and towns with populations greater than 10,000 found - not surprisingly - that crime, violence, and jobs are among the top concerns.
Yet the survey also pointed to a less visible problem whose solution could help address these broader areas. The problem: unfunded federal mandates. Indeed, the report's authors assert that if President Clinton were to hold an urban summit, unfunded mandates would be topic No. 1 among mayors. The mandates that have come out of Washington through legislation or new regulations range from provisions on clean water and asbestos removal to steps needed to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
In each case, few doubt the desirability of the goals; but municipal officials, already struggling to meet local priorities, wind up having to pay a bill set in Washington without regard to a locality's ability to pay and with little or no federal financial help. The league estimates that slightly less than a dozen such mandates alone cost cities $11.3 billion a year - costs that from city planners' viewpoints come out of nowhere and eat into their ability to meet other pressing needs. Between 1994 and 1998, such costs are expected to total $87.8 billion nationally.
Resolving the dispute over unfunded mandates need not involve more money from Congress. Some relief could come, for example, through easing restrictions on the use of money from tax-free municipal bonds.
Ever tighter federal budgets are expected, suggesting that sufficient federal money to match mandates is unlikely. This year's new mayors and their veteran colleagues elsewhere already are challenged to finance programs that reflect local priorities. All the more reason for federal lawmakers and regulators to help them find responsible ways to pay for programs that meet national goals.