Mayors Focus On City Designs Amid Budget Shortfalls

Mayors from across the country are assembling in Chicago to find creative ways of cutting costs and raising efficiency. The meeting comes when many mayors are facing budget shortfalls. Host Michel Martin speaks with two of the mayors attending the summit, Philadelphia's Michael Nutter and Los Angeles' Antonio Villaraigosa.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, storms have devastated communities in the South. Alabama is the hardest hit. We'll talk with a faith leader in Alabama about how he and members of his congregation are holding up to all this. That is later.

But first, in our political chat we're going to talk once again about how cities around the country are holding up in the wake of some of the worst fiscal challenges many have faced in decades.

This weekend in Chicago, a number of mayors from across the country are meeting in Chicago for the Summit on Smart City Design. Their mission: identify the challenges and potential funding sources for public transportation, downtown development and sustainability.

Two of the mayors attending the summit are with us now on the line. Michael Nutter is the mayor of Philadelphia. He's currently serving his first term. Also with us, Los Angeles mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, who's currently serving his second term leading that city. And they're both with us on the line from Chicago. Thank you both so much for joining us once again.

Mr. MICHAEL NUTTER (Mayor, Philadelphia): Thank you.

Mr. ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Mayor, Los Angeles): It's great to be on with you.

MARTIN: So I'm going to ask each of you the question that is maybe on some people's minds. And Mayor Nutter, I'll start with you. Why the focus on city design? And why now when so many cities are struggling with really severe budget problems?

Mr. NUTTER: Well, it's always a good time to focus on city design because design really matters. This is a moment and an opportunity for upwards of 50 mayors to partner with some of the best design and development leaders all across the country. And we're here in Chicago because Mayor Daley, quite frankly, has been one of the great leaders in this movement for a long, long period of time. So there's much to learn and much to share.

We're all working to make our cities more efficient, that we make them places where people want to be. But also, you have to plan for the recovery. And this is absolutely the right time to focus in on these issues, get reenergized. We've done a lot of bad things we've had to do to cut our budgets and cut back in services. But you always have to keep focused on the future and that's what this conference is all about.

MARTIN: Mayor Villaraigosa, the same question to you. In our last conversation with you, in fact, one of the things we talked about is your desire to green the city, to try to embrace the most innovative, particularly energy-saving technologies. Are you finding that a tougher go now that you're facing the same budget challenges many other people are?

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: First of all, I couldn't have said it better than Mayor Nutter just did, particularly the part about Richard Daley. When you come to Chicago and you see Millennium Park, when you see what he's been able to do here over the 20 some-odd years he's been mayor, it's inspirational and it's been a transformation.

And I think all of us are grappling with budget deficits. But there are also opportunities that come with that in our own city, Los Angeles. We have passed a $40 billion half penny sales tax that will generate $40 billion over 30 years. And it's a real opportunity to remake the city, to create transit-oriented districts around subway lines, a light rail. So there's a real opportunity that comes with design.

And you see across the country, many cities, even in these tough budget times, using our funding and using funding from other non-general fund sources, to be able to do that.

MARTIN: Mayor, can I press you on this question? Earlier this week you found yourself, Mayor Villaraigosa, you found yourself at odds with a broad coalition of city workers and members of the Coalition of L.A. City Unions when you ordered managers to impose 42 furlough days on city employees and four union groups after they rejected your proposal for cutting the city's budget shortfall.

How do you make the case, you know, for investing in things like green technologies and, you know, transportation networks at a time when you're asking, you know, the workers who are already there to make some sacrifices? How do you make that case?

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: Well, first of all, this coalition of unions represents 19,000 civilian employees. Approximately almost 15,000 of them supported the proposal that I made. And what I said was that in a time of historic deficits, year after year, that it was important for all of us to fairly and squarely shoulder the burden of resolving and balancing these deficits.

So that's been because of rising pension cost, particularly retiring (unintelligible), paying more to the retiring (unintelligible), most of them agreed to do that and they did because they understood that we've been cutting services, that we've been balancing budgets for some time and that all of us have to shoulder that burden.

With respect to how you make the argument of how we make these investments during these times, as I said, most of our money, the $40 billion that will be generated over 30 years, has nothing to do with the general fund and it's a job creator. If we can accelerate those jobs in 10 years as an example, we would create 166,000 jobs and billions of dollars of revenue.

So we've got to continue to focus on job creation. And with that we're here to design a workshop where cities are looking at the opportunities for design, transformational sustainability as well.

Mr. NUTTER: Michel?

MARTIN: Mayor Nutter?

Mr. NUTTER: Well, I think one of the things you just pointed out and Mayor Villaraigosa laid out the case, the thing about mayors is that while some people have the luxury of thinking about things in a kind of a serial fashion, I'm going to do X and then I'm going to do Y and then I'm going to do Z. Mayors have to do X, Y and Z all at the same time.

So, yes, unfortunately we have, and even in Philadelphia, we've had to make cutbacks in services. We are negotiating contracts to lower our costs. In the meantime, simultaneously, you do have to make these investments which you know, which you can see down the road are going to pay off for you in terms of either additional savings or to spur the private sector to come and invest. You have to do all these things at the same time.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm speaking with Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia. That's who was speaking just now. And Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles. They're joining us from a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Chicago. They're talking about a smart design and a city design, urban design for the future.

So I wanted to ask each of you in the time that we have left, and Mayor Nutter, maybe you'll start with this. I want to ask you, what's been the toughest call that you've had to make so far as you've been addressing these fiscal challenges? And I want to ask you, what are you most excited about from what you're seeing at the summit?

Mr. NUTTER: Well, toughest call is always with regard to public employees and anytime we've had to either lay folks off or we've had a hiring freeze. I had to ask everyone on the executive team to take not only a pay cut, but furloughs. I mean, that's literally money right out of their pocket. And so, that's certainly a challenge. Cutbacks in services, whether it was hours at our libraries. Two summers ago we were not able to open all of our swimming pools. We did last summer. And we will this summer.

So any of those decisions that negatively impact the citizenry are always the toughest. But the things that I'm very proud of are that we're now moving along on a comprehensive plan for Philadelphia. We haven't had one in 50 years. We're rewriting our zoning code. Last time we did that was 40 years ago. We're seeing now development on our waterfront. We'll be opening a new pier, Race Street Pier, in about a month.

And so, people continue to invest. We have companies coming to Philadelphia. We're creating a green and clean tech campus down at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. So there are a lot of exciting and dynamic things taking place right now, even in the aftermath of the worse recession since the Great Depression. So you just have to stay focused and see the vision and carry it out.

MARTIN: And Mayor Nutter, you have to go. So I'm going to let you go. But before I let you go, do you feel that the city's turning the corner fiscally?

Mr. NUTTER: Yes. I did say in my budget address back in early March that I felt that we were starting - I emphasize starting - to turn the corner. We can see where those opportunities are going to be and I am very optimistic about the future, could not be more excited.

MARTIN: Mayor Michael Nutter is in his first term as mayor of the city of Philadelphia. He joins us from Chicago. Mr. Mayor, thank you for joining us.

Mr. NUTTER: Thank you, Michel. Take care, Tony.

MARTIN: And Mayor Villaraigosa, I just wanted to ask you the same question. What's been the toughest call for you since you started dealing with the recession that has gripped, you know, of course the entire country? Actually it's been a global recession. But what's been the toughest call for you and what are you most excited about at the summit that you're now attending?

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: Well, the toughest call for me, much like for Mayor Nutter, has been to furlough people. When you order 42 furloughs, that's roughly eight weeks. And that's a lot of time off. And that's a big cut in pay. And I don't do so because I relish doing it. I do it because we're duty bound to balance our budgets and to do so in a way that tries to protect services as much as possible. So that's probably the toughest thing to do.

What's excited me the most or I'm most proud of over the last few years, I'll tell you, without question, the city's safer than any time since 1952. I'm very proud of that. We've grown our police department. We've made a commitment to the people of this city that we're going to focus our efforts on serving the people, not just protecting them. So we're very focused on community-based policing, have broad support throughout the community.

Education reform, I've taken on my friends and challenged the paradigm and said that we can't accept mediocrity for our kids and that we've got to move ahead to address the many challenges that we face with half of our kids dropping out and 80 percent of them scoring at the bottom 20 percentile.

So we've been focused on, you know, improving the quality of our elementary schools, particularly I've taken over 21 schools, 20,000 kids (unintelligible) performing school district in the state. So those are some of the things that we're proud of.

America Fast Forward, which I've talked to you about before, that half penny sales tax is reverberating around the country. More and more cities and counties are doing the same. And what we're doing is going to the federal government and saying we can create a million jobs if they'll leverage what localities are doing, incentivize us to do more and loan us and be repaid so that we can create jobs now.

MARTIN: Is that realistic given the political environment in Washington?

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: It is realistic. I'll tell you, we have bipartisan support in the Senate and the House to expand the TIFIA program, which is an innovative transportation loan program, where cities put up the vast majority of the money and the federal government puts up some.

And at a time of high deficits and debt, when they're saying they're not going to spend as much on transportation, this provides a 30-to-1 leverage. So, yes, I do believe that the time is now to invest in these jobs and to do it in a way that really incentivizes localities to put up their own money.

MARTIN: All right. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is serving his second term as mayor of Los Angeles. He was with us from Chicago, where he's attending a summit on urban design. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. VILLARAIGOSA: Thank you for having me.

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