U.S City Mayors Convene To Brainstorm Economic Recovery
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
The president of China is wrapping up his U.S. visit. He was the guest of honor at a lavish state dinner last night where the first lady made waves with her fiery red gown. Today she's making headlines again with the retail giant, Wal-Mart, in support the company's announcement that it will sell healthier food. That is, food with less salt and sugar, among other things. We'll hear more in a few minutes.
But even as the White House was hosting Chinese president, Hu Jintao, Washington played host to more than 230 mayors. The United States Conference of Mayors is hosting its winter meeting here. And we've got the mayors of two major cities to talk with us about their first priority - the economy. They've been trying to woo jobs from China, among other places.
An editorial in the U.S. edition of today's Financial Times says that state and local governments had a, quote, bad underlying fiscal position even before the recession began. The downturn is a budgetary calamity uncovering problems of much longer standing. Here to tell us more is Atlanta, Georgia's mayor, Kasim Reed, and Toledo, Ohio's mayor, Michael Bell. And they both briefly left the conference behind to join us in Studio 4B, and we appreciate that. Thank you both so much for joining us.
Mr. KASIM REED (Mayor, Atlanta): Hello, Michel, I'm glad to be here.
Mr. MICHAEL BELL (Mayor, Toledo): Good to be here, Michel.
MARTIN: And we were interested to speak with you because both of you ran at a time when the outlines of the recession were just becoming clear. I mean, this didn't happen in the middle of your terms, you both ran knowing that this is something that you would have to face. So I wanted to ask each of you, is it as bad as you thought it was going to be? Is it worse than you thought it was going to be? And what's the mood in your cities right now? Mayor Bell?
Mr. BELL: Well, it actually got worse when I got in office because we went in and we started off with about a $48 million deficit, which was about 1/6th of our budget. And we knew it was going to be bad. But I can tell you that the nice part about even when something's bad, it gives you an opportunity to change the way you're doing business.
And so what I've looked at this whole thing is an opportunity to change. And we've had to do some very dynamic things. We had to approach our unions for concessions. We had to be able to figure out what other things internally we needed to cut back on. We had to be able to figure out what type of fees we might want to charge or not charge. And it's been a growing process, but I can tell you that it's an upward movement in Toledo and we're feeling pretty good about where we're going to be in the future.
MARTIN: Mayor Reed?
Mr. REED: I think I was actually in tune with how tough it was because I was there close to my predecessor, Mayor Shirley Franklin. And she had already started doing a number of things that were very tough and difficult and I watched her through that process and knew and, really, that I had to just have the will to continue the path that she had been working on and worked through the political difficulties related to it. So it is very, very hard.
But, you know, I'm inspired by the challenge. I really believe that the decisions that I'm making right now are the right things, are not just for two years or four years, but 10 years and 20 years. And I view it as my opportunity to contribute to something which is really special, the city that I love.
MARTIN: Do you see any signs of an up tick? Economists were saying that there are some signs that the recovery is beginning. We're going to talk tomorrow, for example, to a reporter at the Detroit Auto Show, which is wrapping up and there are a lot more vendors there than there were last year and the year before. So, Mayor Reed, are you seeing any signs of...
Mr. REED: Yeah, the answer is that I do. First, I see a much more optimistic spirit. I see businesses making preparations to begin preparing again. And I judge by the level of optimism that I see and the fact that we are seeing our businesses - Atlanta is home to 15 Fortune 500 companies. We're seeing them stop the process of the laying off employees and they have been holding pretty steady. So they haven't started adding significant employees, but holding steady and then I think we're on our way out in about another 12 to 18 months.
MARTIN: Well, you know, to that point, both of your cities have unemployment rates of about 10.3 percent. That's higher than the national rate of 9.4 percent. And to that end, Mayor Bell, you have traveled to China to try to get Chinese investors interested in investing in your city. I understand that a Chinese investor may be interested in developing part of the Toledo waterfront. I'm curious of how your constituents react to this.
Do they like to see you traveling abroad? I mean, sometimes that's controversial when public leaders, travel abroad 'cause constituents don't always feel that that's the best use of their time or money. How are those efforts going?
Mr. BELL: Well, they're actually going pretty well. One of the things that I knew coming in is that we couldn't do things the same old way. And the economy itself has gone global. It's not local. It's not state. It's not really even national. It's global. And so the idea or concept of going to foreign countries to look for new jobs and new opportunities was really sort of big on my schedule.
And the reason I say that it's such an important thing to do is that if I go and I take some jobs from somewhere else in the United States and I bring them to Ohio, all I've done is start a shell game. I haven't changed the national economy. But if I bring something new in, oh, man, then that's an opportunity for new jobs, new money and to get our city moving. And I can tell you that it's been met, for the most part, very positive.
I mean, when you got a city with a lot of people, there are going to be some people that are not in agreement, but the whole idea of being a leader is to do things different and do it for the right reasons, and that's for the people.
MARTIN: That's Mayor Michael Bell. He's the mayor of Toledo, Ohio. I'm speaking with him and Atlanta's mayor, Kasim Reed. They're both in Washington for the U.S. Conference of Mayors' winter meeting this week.
Mayor Reed, what do you think is the hardest decision you've had to make since you've been mayor? I know that this week Atlanta's public schools are placed on probation by one of the nation's top accrediting agencies.
Mr. REED: Uh-huh.
MARTIN: The Southern Association for Colleges and Schools, that means students could lose all ability for scholarship money.
Mr. REED: Sure. Well, one, in Atlanta, I do not control the school system, but I'm getting directly involved to make sure that our accreditation is maintained. The hardest decisions that I had to make, one, was to close a $48 million budget shortfall within the first six months of office without raising taxes. The other is, is that I've moved aggressively in the space of pension reform.
So doing my first budget when I was about six months into office, we changed the vesting schedule from 10 to 15 years. We changed the multiplier down from three to two for all incoming employees. We did everything we could regarding pension reform that we could do without being sued and risking the overall budget for the city. It was extremely tough. It required a super majority of the Atlanta City Council. And we have a very strong and well organized union in city government. And I worked with them through that process.
But pension reform is very hard. It is easily the biggest fiscal threat to the city of Atlanta, probably not when I'm in office, but right after I leave. About 2017, 2018, the pension challenge in Atlanta will go from absorbing 20 percent of every dollar that comes in the door of the general fund now, to about 30 percent, by about 2017, 2018.
So we were on a path before the reforms we implemented, where we were growing at about 13 points a year, Michel. And that had to be dealt with. And I got elected with very strong labor support. And the turnaround within six months, have to make some of those decisions, has been very hard.
MARTIN: What about you, Mayor Bell?
Mr. BELL: I had the same case that Mayor Reed did. We had to be able to balance our $40 million deficit in three months. And so coming in and being new at that time, a year or so ago, and trying to bring everybody together, because for one, it was a surprise that it was going to be so bad. I mean, I knew coming in that there was problems, but we never thought it was at the $48 million mark.
And so being about to come up with new concepts in three months with a new mayor, new council members and have them all move in the same direction, that was a difficult time and period, but we were able to get through it and it's actually proved to work out in a very good way because we were able to eliminate most of that 48 million.
MARTIN: And in the time we have left, I wanted to ask you about one other issue that has been talked about a lot in the city and, really, around the country in recent weeks, is there's a whole question of the tone of our politics these days. Both of you, as I've mentioned, are in your second year in office. You both had tough races to get to this point.
A civility accord was given to all the mayors at the conference this week to sign and asking people to respect each other's opinions, particularly across party lines. I wanted to ask if you think this is necessary. Do you think that there is a new tone called for? Mayor Bell...
Mr. REED: Oh, no question.
MARTIN: Go ahead. Okay, well, Mayor Bell, I'll give you the first word, Mayor Reed, I'll give you the last word, Okay?
Mr. REED: Yeah, sure. No problem.
MARTIN: Go ahead.
Mr. BELL: Yeah. Yes, there is a different attitude and people are more defiant. And I think that nationally they're just mad and they don't know who they're mad at, but it's easy to pick on a politician. And so the idea of putting something in that makes people understand that they need to still be respectful. That they still need to be - have a positive attitude and they need to believe in their own city.
No one city is going to turn around with just the mayor. It requires the whole citizenship to be involved. And what I've been trying to do is make people understand that, that I'm about them. I'm about helping them. And that'll go a long ways to where we need to be.
MARTIN: What about you, Mayor Reed, what do you think?
Mr. REED: I believe tone is very necessary right now and I think that as elected leaders and leaders in our communities, we need to focus on tone and on civility as a part of our continual conversation. I said prior to Tucson and have been saying in the 13 months I've been in office, that everything you can say, all of the hard things that need to be said to one another can be said in a manner that's civil.
So the volume and all of the rest really doesn't move the ball forward. And I really believe we're in a place as communities, as cities and certainly as a nation where the problems are so great, that we really should be doing without the misdirected rage because we're really losing our national footing in this period of gains (unintelligible).
MARTIN: What's your personal commitment on that score?
Mr. REED: My personal commitment is to govern my behavior accordingly. I mean, I ran in a very tough election with a white woman and there were great fears in Atlanta. A person who I ran against in my runoff was a white female. And Atlanta has a very long history with regard to race and civility. And we ran a campaign that I think at the end of the day the city was proud of. We had more than 65 debates, multiple public appearances and a real opportunity for things to go wrong. So I think the example you set is by living it.
MARTIN: And you are African American, for those who don't know, as is Mayor Bell.
Mr. REED: Yes.
MARTIN: We thank you both so much for joining us. Kasim Reed is the mayor of Atlanta, Georgia. Michael Bell is the mayor of Toledo, Ohio. They were both kind enough to take a break from the winter conference of the United Conference of Mayors to join us here in our studios in Washington. Thank you both so much, and good luck to you both.
Mr. REED: Thank you, Michel. You take care.
Mr. BELL: I'm so glad to be here, Michel. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.