August 19, 2022

Mayors See End to Wars as Fix for Struggling Cities

Providence and Hollywood, Fla., issued layoff notices to police officers this month that will cut jobs in the coming weeks unless the cities get more union concessions. Lansing, Mich., and New York are threatening to close fire stations. Teachers are getting pink slips in Philadelphia, and schools in Montgomery, Ala., are being closed. Libraries are open less. And potholes are staying unfilled longer in cities like Minneapolis.

Local governments shed 28,000 jobs last month, the Department of Labor reported, and have lost 446,000 jobs since employment peaked in September 2008.

So when downturn-weary mayors from around the country gathered here on Friday for the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Mayors, they decided to make a statement: they introduced a resolution calling for the speedy end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and calling on Congress to use the $126 billion a year the wars cost for urgent domestic needs.

The resolution, which will be decided Monday, seems likely to pass. “There are so many better uses for the money,” said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake of Baltimore. Mayor R. T. Rybak of Minneapolis lamented that cities across the nation were being forced to make “deeply painful cuts to the most core services while the defense budget continued to escape scrutiny.” And Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles said that the idea “that we would build bridges in Baghdad and Kandahar and not Baltimore and Kansas City absolutely boggles the mind.”

The rare foray of mayors into foreign policy — 40 years after the conference approved a resolution calling for an end to the Vietnam War — reflects not just the nation’s increasing war weariness but a growing concern about the expense as Washington seems intent on cutting domestic spending even as many localities are struggling.

Many cities are hurting. They are losing federal aid, and at least 18 states are cutting aid to local governments. Ohio is planning some of the deepest cuts to local aid; Mayor Michael B. Coleman of Columbus said, “The state cut is a punch in the gut, and in the jaw, and for some cities, it’s going to knock them out.”

And because it often takes several years for property tax assessments to catch up with the state of the housing market, the real impact of the housing implosion is only now being felt in many cities. For the first time since the Great Recession began, property tax collections fell during the last three months of 2010, according to an analysis of data by the Rockefeller Institute, and many mayors expect the declines to continue.

Mayor Virg Bernero of Lansing, Mich., said that some of his constituents wondered why things were still so tight at the local level. “Our cities — and it ain’t just Lansing — our cities are stumbling, many of them, on the edge of receivership,” he said. “We rely on property taxes. The silent scream that is happening out there is this continued foreclosure crisis. The unemployment rate is unacceptably high. But the foreclosure rate is outlandish. We rely on those property taxes, and they are in steep decline.”

Lansing’s property values have declined by $1.4 billion since the market peaked in 2007, and tax collections are coming in lower. After voters rejected a proposal to raise the tax rate this year, Mayor Bernero moved to make the first major cuts to the city’s police and fire departments: 44 police officers and 44 firefighters face layoffs at the end of the month if no deal is reached with the unions, and the city will lose two of its eight fire houses. “I’m providing 2011 services with a 2001 budget,” the mayor said, adding that even the high cost of gas is a strain.

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