Creative Juices Flow At Squeezed City Halls

BESET by tightening budgets and increasing financial burdens imposed on them by Washington, cities across the country are looking for new ways to make local government work.

The new mantra: Be creative.

In Cody, Wyo., for example, the city has computerized the inventory of its electrical system to help determine when aging equipment, such as electrical transformers or underground lines, may need replacement.

Willmar, Minn., formed a partnership between the city, banks, churches, and a foundation to help provide shelter for needy residents. They put together $320,000 in revolving loans to help 128 families about to be left homeless after a mobile-home park closed.

In San Leandro, Calif., the city offers a "home earthquake strengthening program" for cheap. The program includes workshops, videos, and a tool-lending library so citizens can secure their homes - saving lives and money - for the next big earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area.

Cities "are constantly under the gun to find new ways to do the same old thing - to save a penny, to use a resource, to share a resource, to work with another community and save money," says Renee Winsky, the National League of Cities' manager of local government services.

These are among the ideas shared at a recent National League of Cities conference here. Finding ways to stretch a municipal dollar have become de rigueur at such meetings - for good reason.

With federal agencies paring down the services and funding they provide state and local governments, city officials are forced to do more with less.

A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington estimates that under the budget plan now before Congress, state and local governments stand to lose $95 billion in federal aid in the year 2002, compared with funding levels in the current law.

A loss in federal aid of that magnitude would exceed one-quarter of projected revenues from state sales taxes, personal income taxes, and corporate income taxes combined.

The GOP Contract With America prodded government at all levels "to wake up to the fact that Americans are tired of government and government officials who were not responsive to their needs," says Robert Kiehl, an Independent council member in Bridgeton, Mo.

"There is more responsiveness and more awareness by voters of what's going on," he says. "It makes it more difficult for us elected officials because we have people looking over our shoulders. But it forces us to look creatively for solutions that may not be evident on the first pass-by."

One key element to the future success of cities, say officials, is in forming partnerships with businesses and other governmental entities.

Gainsville, Ga., population 20,000, formed a human relations committee to address issues involving race relations as affirmative action programs came under assault.

"It would be a lot better if we were to sit and talk; rather than have confrontation, have conversation," says John Morrow Jr., the former mayor and current council member, who is African-American.

Citizens, too, are enjoying a greater voice in local planning. In Seattle several years ago, the city brought together 2,000 citizens to define major goals in improving education. The city then passed a $7 million property tax levy to fund day-care centers, teen centers, family support workers, nutrition programs, and after-school recreation programs for children.

The program, now in the seventh year of its nine-year run, has been "very successful" in meeting its goals, says Mayor Norman Rice, president of the US Conference of Mayors.

Columbus, Ohio, is in the midst of a citywide revitalization program, which was begun three years ago and involves 170 neighborhoods.

The idea, according to Mayor Greg Lashutka, is for city hall to listen to neighborhoods' concerns and help each prioritize issues that need addressing, such as crime, housing, or community-based policing.

"I don't know how you build cities without having strength in neighborhoods," says Lashutka.

Cities are also tapping new technology to provide improved services at less cost.

The National League of Cities offers high-tech assistance of its own with a database of 4,000 programs on a wide range of subjects.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.