Thursday, March 13, 2008

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Advocate
Richard Blassberg

Our Cities Must Be Allowed, And Encouraged, To Solve Their Own Issues

If I was a betting man, I would take all of the action I could get that the occupant of the Oval Office, come next January, will be a Democrat. One doesn’t have to be terribly bright to figure that out. Last month, Hillary raised $35 million, Obama was estimated to have raised more than $50 million, and Republican John McCain was all-out to raise $12 million. Just follow the money to the White House.

Having said that, history suggests that there will very likely be extensive Federal Urban Renewal programs in the offing. Obama has already
announced his intention, if elected, to establish a White House Office of Urban Policy to, as he framed its function, “develop a strategy for Metropolitan America.” Not to be outdone, Clinton has proposed spending hundreds of millions of dollars to develop an
Urban Agenda aimed at resolving issues of education, crime, and health care. John McCain, on the other hand, has made it abundantly
clear that he intends to continue pouring our hard-earned tax dollars into Bush’s Folly, the Iraq War, for decades, if necessary.

A look back into the relationship between Washington and our nation’s cities is instructive. More than 75 years ago, in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected, and promptly installed dozens of federal programs designed to put millions of unemployed Americans back to work building roads, bridges, public buildings, dams; infrastructure all across the country, much of it in major cities. Concurrently, the C.C.C., Civilian Conservation Corps, gave employment and training to two and a half million young people, engaging them in flood control, forestry, and soil conservation in rural and suburban areas.

The C.W.A., Civil Works Administration, supplied funds to cities and states for public projects: the building of streets, roads, bridges, public buildings and schools. The W.P.A., Works Projects Administration, employed two million otherwise unemployed Americans, many of whom were also engaged in improving urban infrastructure. Over the years, other Democratic administrations: Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton, would follow suit, each establishing agencies and programs that directly engaged in housing, transportation, and commerce-related renewal and improvement projects in major urban areas.

Republicans, on the other hand, have historically been more inclined to criticize Washington’s direct involvement in the solving of urban problems, labeling such public works projects “handouts” and “wasteful spending.” Republican administrations have been generally less sympathetic, less forthcoming with respect to the plight of major cities. Most memorable, in this regard, was the Daily News headline Ford To NYC: Drop Dead, referring, of course, to President Gerald Ford’s refusal to bail New York City out of its financial crisis in 1975.

Presently, after more than seven years under a Republican administration, cities are receiving less than five percent of their budgets from the
Federal government. Cities, such as New York, Chicago, and Los Ange-les, and numerous others, have beautified, rebuilt, and strengthened their waterfronts and infrastructure over the past two decades largely without federal assistance, achieving superior results.

It stands to reason that programs conceived and executed by local authorities would be more likely to succeed in solving urban problems. “One size fits all” concepts, typical of federal programs, are often wide of the mark, wasteful and ineffective.

Furthermore, in the back-and forth exchange between municipalities and Washington, particularly when unfunded mandates are factored in, cities invariably come up on the short end of the equation, particularly under Republican administrations. For example, it is estimated that in 2007 New York City paid some $20 billion more to Washington than it received in assistance.

Nevertheless, there are those who argue, and I suggest rightly so, that Revenue-Sharing, a concept originally introduced during the Nixon Administration, is a far better option for our cities than seeking federal grants which often come with strings attached. Under Revenue-Sharing, more of the funds collected by municipalities, remain with those local governments who, in turn, retain a great deal more autonomy over their expenditure.

In summary, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would do well to rethink their urban strategies, making a clean break from past Democratic administrations which somehow preferred to throw money at problems in their attempt to resolve them by remote control. Hillary and Barack must recognize the efficiency of permitting cities and states to retain enough of their collected revenues to meaningfully impact their needs, while encouraging the Federal Government to deal with national, interstate issues: mass transit, rail and air, interdiction of drug and arms traffic, the interstate highway system, control of ports and waterways.

By allowing cities to plan and execute their own programs, the likely new Democratic administration will break with the predictably poor results of past Democratic administrations in the decades since FDR by encouraging local governments to bring all interested and concerned parties to the table, thus insuring success and pride through involvement and consensus.

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