Mayors Call for Aid

More than 250 mayors convened this week for the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, with home foreclosures and the faltering economy top issues on their agenda. Trenton, N.J., Mayor Douglas H. Palmer, the president of the conference, discusses action that must be taken by cities to combat these economic woes.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Coming up: a conversation about global security and how women in the developing world can get more involved.

But first, the U.S. Conference of Mayors is holding its annual winter meeting in Washington. The mayors went to the White House yesterday for a brief meeting with President Bush, who told reporters he was confident that his stimulus plan of about $150 billion would help what he called a fundamentally strong economy.

The state of the economy, along with the foreclosure crisis, has hit many cities hard, and it's one of the many things the mayors are talking about. They're also thinking about the environment and their constituents' fears about crime - the homegrown kind, and terrorist threats from abroad.

Joining us now to talk about all of this is the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Trenton, New Jersey's mayor, Douglas Palmer. He joins us on the line from Washington. Welcome, mayor. Thanks for joining us.

Mayor DOUGLAS PALMER (Democrat, Trenton, New Jersey): Thanks for asking me, Michel.

MARTIN: So, mayor, obviously, the headlines on the national news - a lot of talk about the threat of recession. Some people say it's already here. What's - what are your fellow mayors saying? What do they think is the case about the economy?

Mayor PALMER: Well, you know, we're very - like most Americans - cautiously pessimistic about the economy. And we do believe that we're - if we're not in a recession, that we're heading in a recession. And, of course, when the nation as a whole has a cold, the cities really get pneumonia. And so, we're very concerned because of a recession, as well as, the foreclosure crisis that's happening in a lot of our cities.

So when you have those things happening, it hurts our local economy. It hurts our economic development strategies. It takes away much needed tax revenue and puts people out of work, and more people out of work.

But, you know, mayors, we've been very aggressive in trying to tell the president and the Congress what we feel is needed to help jumpstart our economy, and also to help cities and citizens who are facing the stress of the mortgage foreclosure crisis.

MARTIN: Well, talk to me more about that, if you would. I mean, as you, of course, know, the White House and congressional leaders are negotiating this economic stimulus package, and seem to be working really hard to come up with a quick agreement. Given, as you pointed out, that the foreclosure crisis, number one, and oil - gas prices, number two, seem to be the sort of the two main drags on the economy, is what Congress talking about, is what the White House talking about relevant to the problem, in your view?

Mayor PALMER: Well, certainly, it is. And it's good to see that they're sitting down and working. We, as America's mayors, want to put in place a stimulus package that really will not only stimulate the economy right now in the short term, but also has sustainability.

MARTIN: What I'm asking you, though, is the fix the right fix? For example, one of the issues that was just negotiated away was any increase in food stamp benefits. And this is the kind of thing that a lot of mayors are interested in because they say this is an immediate stimulus. Clearly, that money is going to be spent right away. And this is one of the issues that was just taken off the table.

From your perspective as a mayor, particularly of a mayor of a large urban area, do you think that the White House and Congress are headed down the right path?

Mayor PALMER: Well, I hope that they are. I think that there has to be still a lot of negotiation, but we have to do it quickly. You know, the mayors also feel it's important that if you look at ways in which you can get money into the economy and into the hands of people, you know - the CDBG has been cut for the last four or five years.

MARTIN: Which is what?

Mayor PALMER: The CDBG programs, Community Development Block Grants that go to the cities each year based on a formula that's used for housing rehabilitation to help social service agencies. It's been cut by millions of dollars.

We believe if you fully fund CDBG, we can immediately get that into the hands of our citizens because we do this each and every year, as well as we have a foreclosure crisis where people will be losing their homes. And it's a tremendous drag on our economy. It's a tremendous drag on our cities, and it's a tremendous disaster for families.

We believe that if you want to stimulate the economy, some of these funds should go to help people that are near foreclosure, and help them restructure their loans so that they don't - do not lose their homes.

MARTIN: You think that the federal money should be used for that?

Mayor PALMER: I believe…

MARTIN: Because at the current time, the administration's point of view seems to be to negotiate with lenders to ask them to freeze the rate on a voluntary basis for only a select group of homeowners. You think that's the right approach, or you think that federal money should actually be used to forestall the foreclosures?

Mayor PALMER: I think federal money should be used to forestall. You know, the president said that, you know, the market will take care of itself. Well, we see that that's not happening. I believe that there has to be help from the federal government in terms of a stimulus to help people that are going to lose their homes restructure. I mean, that's something that can be helped and worked on, you know, right away.

MARTIN: Well, some people argue that that's the government picking winners and losers, that there are individuals, who voluntarily entered into these agreements, that they clearly, in many cases, could not afford, and that there's individual responsibility here. What do you say to that?

Mayor PALMER: In some cases, that may be right. But let's face it, because the Federal Reserve was asleep at the switch and because we didn't have FHA reform, which the U.S. council mayors called for over five years ago, a lot of these individuals were preyed on, predatory lending.

Our country doesn't make things anymore like they used to in the '30s, '40s, '50s. They've looked at real estate as a way of helping jumpstart the economy. We projected through our global insight report that over 524,000 lost jobs this year if these foreclosures go through, and a potential $6.6 billion in tax revenues - and that's just in 10 states - will happen. So…

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mayor PALMER: …hopefully, we've learned from this. But I believe, and mayors believe we have to help these homeowners in our cities right now, because that is a big drag on our economy and on our services that we'll have to provide…

MARTIN: Okay.

Mayor PALMER: …to these abandoned properties.

MARTIN: One more question on that point before we move on to other subjects. The city of Baltimore recently filed suit against Wells Fargo Bank. They say they that they allegedly targeted low-income African-American neighborhoods in that city for these subprime mortgages. The city of Cleveland filed a similar suit against a group of lenders. Are you considering something like that? Or are the mayors as a group considering this kind of legal action?

Mayor PALMER: Well, we're looking at that, and certainly, we don't begrudge any mayor for trying to do all that they can to help their citizens. And I think you have to look at what's going on in each one of those cities.

I know, in my city of Trenton, we've been working with the mortgage bankers, the faith-based community and our non-profits in terms of getting the information out - that don't be afraid to open your mail when you get a letter from your mortgage company or your lender. You know, don't be ashamed to try and save your home. Pick up the phone, because we want people to call so that they can immediately talk to the councilors so that we can hopefully help stem that tide.

MARTIN: Okay. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Trenton, New Jersey's mayor, Douglas Palmer. He is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which is holding its annual winter session in Washington, D.C. right now.

Mr. Mayor, I wanted to ask about a poll that the conference commission - that's Zogby national poll on issues important to Americans as the presidential election heats up. One of its findings says that Americans fear local crime by a big margin more than they do terrorism. Were you surprised by that?

Mayor PALMER: No. No, not really. Because I've been saying and mayors have been saying for over two years now when we have been asking that Homeland Security money go direct to cities, because mayors are the first responders and know how to spend the money. But, also, in our strong support of the COPS program…

MARTIN: COPS is a program that steers federal funding…

Mayor PALMER: Right, right.

MARTIN: …toward the local police forces.

Mayor PALMER: We've lost over 100,000 police since the '90s, and we see that violent crime has gone up. We've lobbied hard for more money in the COPS program.

MARTIN: And it appears that the administration is going - has at least heard you to some degree that we anticipate that there's going to be an announcement later today that there will be about $200 million in federal funds next year in effort to combat violent crime. Because as you said, you know, over the last two years, there's been an upswing in violent crime after years of decline. Do you think that's going to help?

Mayor PALMER: Yeah, absolutely. But you need to do more than just that. It has to be a comprehensive solution. You can't have Homeland Security unless you have hometown security, and they're not mutually exclusive.

MARTIN: Mayor, I have one more question for you. I know you have a very busy schedule today, and so I appreciate the time you spent with us. I do want to ask about the environment, because the environment is also on the agenda with the conference of mayors. This is a tough sell in some communities, and I - you know, there are some parts of the country where the environment is always an important topic with citizens.

But in other parts of the country, people just say, you know what? It's just not one of my priorities. So in Trenton, you've launched an initiative to make the city more green, as it were. What's the goal? I mean, how do you get people interested in this who otherwise aren't?

Mayor PALMER: Michel, I'm impressed. You have done your homework. You know about my Trenton Green initiative. Well, you know, you're exactly right. There are certain parts of the country like Seattle, Washington, where Mayor Greg Nickels launched the drive to get mayors signed up for our mayors' climate protection agreement which will reduce greenhouse gases to the 1990 levels.

And, you know, I went to a conference. We had a summit where President Clinton and Vice President Gore and Mayor Bloomberg spoke. And we talked for two days about how we can create green-collar jobs and careers, how we can help retrofit buildings. And people in the North - Northwest, actually - are way ahead of the curb. And I jokingly said that if I came back to my city and told my residents, especially those in some of the neighborhoods, and if I start talking about climate change, they say, yeah, mayor. We need the climate around our neighborhoods to change. And there's - they're not connected.

So what we're doing in Trenton is trying to connect to all of our citizens about how important climate change and global warming and what we can do about it based on what their experience. But green-collar careers and jobs that are - can happen as a result of clean energy and retrofitting buildings and creating the new technologies that will restart and recreate new jobs is something that residents in a lot of my neighborhoods, low-income neighborhoods, are listening to.

I believe that, nationally, people do understand what you could connect, how it helps them. How it can help a senior citizen save on their electric bills by just using a compact fluorescent light bulb, which may cost a little more, but lasts five to eight years and help reduce their energy consumption. And the innovation that mayors all across our country are doing in small cities and large cities and medium-sized cities will get it.

Mayors have been leading this charge because the federal government for years did not even recognize that global warming existed. Domestic issues are really important. And that's what really came out in this poll, looking at climate change, looking at education, cops programs, affordable housing, the mortgage crisis - that these are the issues that are our priorities, that are also the priorities of the American people.

MARTIN: Douglas Palmer is the mayor of Trenton, New Jersey. He is also the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which is holding its annual winter session here in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mayor PALMER: Thanks, Michel.

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