Although local government revenues have improved in the last year, ICMA President Lee Feldman told the audience at a forum on the Presidential Transition: Impact on Local Governments, “It seems like we’re in the kind of recovery we have after a hurricane where we see sunshine and blue skies through the holes in our roof.” Feldman and three other local government experts addressed challenges with public financing, transportation and infrastructure, and public safety and criminal justice at the forum hosted by the National Academy of Public Administration at George Mason University on October 24, 2016.
Feldman talked about the need for the federal government to take a more common sense approach with local governments to achieve results. He and Arlington County Police Chief Murray “Jay” Farr talked about the time and effort local governments put into a grant proposal for bulletproof vests as an example of a poor return on a federal investment. “We got a check for $57.75 from the federal government for the vests. A standard formula for allocating resources does not make sense in today’s world,” he said.
Roanoke City Manager Christopher P. Morrill added that when there are budgetary constraints, it’s important to invest. “You can’t cut your way to prosperity.”
Morrill and U.S. Conference of Mayors Executive Director Tom Cochran emphasized the importance of investing in Metropolitan areas. “That’s where the jobs are,” Cochran explained. “The Metropolitan economy of the Indianapolis region is larger than the state of Nebraska.”
Feldman agreed that it is helpful for the federal government to focus on regions. Another important role for the federal government is to invest in national research, he added. What the federal government could most improve, the panel agreed, is to reduce the time it takes to move forward with infrastructure projects.
Penelope A. Gross, Fairfax County Supervisor, said it took four years to get through all of the federal requirements just to get a median installed on top of an existing road. “Federal funding delayed this project because the National Environmental Policy Act required a detailed review – just to put concrete on top of existing asphalt. Why?” she asked.
Panelists stressed the importance of economic justice as all levels of government sort through priorities and budgetary constraints. “While local governments agree that it is good to have reflective street signs,” Feldman said, “we also have to fill potholes. Local governments are in the best position to set local priorities.”
Dealing with traffic congestion is a high priority, but the federal government has not shown the necessary leadership to address the problem. States have begun to fill the gap with a variety of approaches, including raising the state taxes on gasoline and adding toll roads. Panelists expressed concern that toll roads are not fair to lower income workers who have the same commuting challenges as those who can afford to pay the tolls.
When it comes to public safety and building trust with the community, the solutions take time. “It can take seven to twelve years to have the necessary dialogue with the community, make the improvements, and build trust,” said Feldman.
Gross agreed. “When you want to make sure that your police force reflects the face of the community, you have to recruit for diversity,” she said. ‘That can be difficult when some potential applicants come from a culture where the police are not respected or are viewed as the bad guys,” she added.
“We’ve had to go through as many as 1,000 applications to find the candidate we sought,” she added. “But now we have a police force with Latinos, Muslims, Vietnamese, and even a Korean female officer.”
The workforce of the future is changing rapidly, panelists noted. “We are used to recruiting millennials,” said Feldman, “and now we are beginning to recruit Generation Z.” New officers are much more technology savvy and oriented toward diversity, panelists said. They are often very well educated and undergo extensive training in many police departments.
The picture varies across the country and “any community could be the next Ferguson,” Feldman said. “It takes just one bad apple out of 850,000 good apples. The key is have a good community response and how you deal with a problem afterwards,” he concluded.