Mayors' Tips for Tight Fiscal Times

City officials offer some innovations to meet demand for services in era of slim resources

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

CITY government didn't seem to be making a difference in the small, run-down Buffalo, N.Y., neighborhood. Boarded buildings, garbage-strewn lots, abandoned vehicles - signs of poverty were everywhere.

Then one early morning, in the midst of a drenching downpour, the Mayor's Impact Team (MIT) swept into the community. In two days, this city crew - personnel from the Board of Education, the Police Department, Streets and Sanitation, Housing and Inspections, the Sewer Authority, Parking Violations, and Community Development - changed the community dramatically.

``We hauled 36 tons of trash, gave out 25 parking summons, issued 24 letters for building-code violations,'' says Buffalo Mayor Anthony Masiello. ``We recovered three stolen automobiles and a flatbed truck that was reported missing ... 18 years ago.''

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This is just one way hard-pressed mayors around the nation, faced with shrinking resources and a growing demand for services, are turning to innovative solutions.

More than 200 city mayors taught each other how to get things done at a recent National Conference of Mayors meeting here. The dream-child of Chicago's Mayor Richard M. Daley, Best Practices in City Government is the first forum designed to help city mayors share problem-solving.

``I can't believe it. I had to come all the way here to learn this,'' said a Californian after Mayor Ellen Corbett of San Leandro, Calif., handed out the city's mini-magazine, ``Three Easy Low Cost Ways to Make Your Home Earthquake Survivable.''

San Leandro, no stranger to temblors, has thousands of homes with foundations that would not withstand an earthquake. So, the city, in tandem with the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) and private industry, developed workshops to train homeowners how to earthquake-proof their homes.

Industry and building experts train homeowners how to bolt down foundations, strap heaters, brace chimneys, and reinforce walls. A lending library provides free tools and materials donated by businesses to anyone who's completed a workshop.

``Building housing for the poor, that's our main problem,'' says Mayor Melanino Bobe of Hormiqueros, Puerto Rico. ``We have so many poor who need housing.''

Philadelphia, which faced a fiscal crisis in 1992, presented what might be called America's most unusual local government budgeting invention. After the state helped provide a $475-million bailout of the city, $20 million was put into a ``productivity bank.''

The bank is a revolving fund that loans city departments money. Each time a department comes up with a project, it must demonstrate it will save money or generate dollars equal to the amount of the loan after five years, a city official says.

One example: The legal department borrows $700,000 to computerize its offices. It gets the money, but would have to show savings in reduced clerical costs, service benefits, and improved case management.

``During the 1980s to 1992, when the city was struggling to survive,'' Deputy Mayor Linda Berkowitz says, ``the thing that got robbed the most was information technology and automation. The bank is allowing us to finally enter the 1990s and prepare ourselves for the 21st century.''

Sometimes what a city needs is a marriage.

In 1992, the downtown district of Wilmington, Del., was in tough shape. Office buildings stood vacant. Retail stores were moving out. Jobs were leaving for the suburbs.

Then, in 1993, after Wilmington's new mayor, James Sills, an advocate of city-business partnerships, took office, Wilmington 2000 was formed.

Made up of 25 volunteer board members, Wilmington 2000 created a partnership between CEOs from Wilmington's largest employers, business interests, and government officials. They quickly made inroads on revitalizing downtown.

Within a year, DuPont, Beneficial, FCC National Bank, and other businesses expanded operations. By 1994, Maryland National Bank began major construction and pledged 1,000 jobs for local residents. Later, the firm relocated its corporate headquarters to Wilmington, promising up to another 3,000 jobs. Smaller retail shops are returning downtown, and job fairs and social and cultural events have become part of the city's revitalization.

In Virginia Beach, Va., an all-volunteer emergency-medical response team watches over the town's busy beachfront.

``EMT volunteers, who train on their own time and serve two four-hour shifts each month, bought their own ambulances and equipment with money borrowed from the city at no interest,'' says Mayor Meyera Oberndorf.

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