New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said there’s “not a cavalry coming right now from Washington” to solve issues of economic inequality, education and homelessness confronting the nation’s cities.
In an era of Tea Party politics pressing for reduced government spending, responsibility rests with mayors, and it does no good “to curse the darkness,” said de Blasio, who became leader of the most-populous U.S. city in January.
De Blasio, 52, joined Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed in an all-Democrat forum yesterday on the future of cities at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. In a friendly, 75-minute discussion before an audience of about 250, they took turns condemning the politics of special interests and bashing the federal government’s neglect of urban challenges.
“Washington is AWOL, totally AWOL,” said Emanuel, 54, using an acronym for absent without leave. “And the state capitals have, as we know in Illinois, huge budgetary problems, and we are cast on our own at a moment in time to try to boost our economies.”
Even as most U.S. cities are seeing economic gains after the longest recession since the 1930s, surging retirement costs from New York to California are taking away from spending on services and public safety and increasing competition for resources.
De Blasio is pressing for state permission to raise taxes on the rich, to pay for universal pre-kindergarten. Garcetti, 43, wants to sacrifice a municipal business tax to fight shrinking employment in the nation’s second-largest city.
Retiree costs have saddled Emanuel, chief of the third most-populous city, with the highest debt load per person among the 25 most-populous U.S. cities, according to a January report from Morningstar Inc.
Reed, 44, has been widely criticized for his handling of a paralyzing snowstorm this winter in Atlanta, the ninth-largest metropolis in the U.S.
Crime was not offered by any of the mayors as a prominent issue, a change from the litany of urban challenges officials often focused on in years past. Rates of violent crime have dropped in most major U.S. cities. New York recorded a 20 percent decline in homicides in 2013, and the fewest number -- 333 -- since comparable records were kept.
The economies of almost all U.S. cities are projected to grow this year, according to a report released in January by the U.S. Conference of Mayors. The survey of 363 metropolitan areas showed all but seven will see economic gains as the national expansion accelerates.
The improving financial picture gave cities their first increase in revenue last year after the longest recession since the 1930s, which officially ended in 2009.
At the same time, rising retirement costs are straining state and local government pensions underfunded by at least $1 trillion, according to a January report by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, New York.
The pressure from unfunded pension liabilities prompted Moody’s Investors Service to downgrade Chicago’s credit rating to three steps above junk on March 4. The agency said the obligations “threaten the city’s fiscal solvency.”
Atlanta’s Reed, who was re-elected in November, said it’s time for the U.S. government to change its relationship with cities.
“Seventy percent of the country’s GDP is in cities that we lead, but despite that we still have to deal with states,” Reed said. “Send the money directly to us because we get it to where it is needed faster and more efficiently.”
Garcetti said Los Angeles is creating high-paying jobs at a faster rate than low-paying jobs, “yet our poverty rate is higher five years after the recession than before.”
“We have this amazing American innovation hub,” he said, “but with no help from the nation.”