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It’s Time to Get Back to Basics

The League board of directors met in November 2008 to set the organization’s strategic priorities for 2009. This process helps us articulate our agenda for the coming year and provides the entire organization with a framework for action. The discussion took place against a backdrop of dismal economic news.

The question of how to respond to multiple challenges that affect our local budgets and our communities’ economic vitality was foremost in everyone’s mind. The general sense is that cities are going to be grappling with the effects of volatile financial markets, foreclosures, the credit crunch, layoffs, deficits and revenue shortfalls for the long haul.

It’s time to tighten our belts and get back to basics.

First, many cities are responding to state budget cuts and declining property and sales tax revenues by laying off staff, choosing not to fill existing vacant positions, and imposing mandatory work furloughs. In light of these efforts, it’s critically important to protect our vital community services. Public safety and essential services must come first to protect our residents’ quality of life.

Second, amidst a great deal of talk statewide and nationwide about economic stimulus, it’s clear that we need to do things to jump-start the economy. The best economic stimulus tools that local communities have are redevelopment and other local infrastructure investments. Redevelopment brings vitality and jobs to depressed and blighted areas. It is the bedrock of our ability to stimulate the economy, and we must preserve it. Cities also can rapidly deploy any additional economic stimulus payments that might be forthcoming from the federal government, quickly creating valuable construction jobs.

In its 2008-09 budget, the state took $350 million from local redevelopment budgets in a shortsighted move that undercut the only real economic development tool available to California. Cities need to attract employers and help existing local businesses flourish, and redevelopment is key to that process. In dealing with its own fiscal problems, the state needs to recognize that robbing local redevelopment funds is akin to shooting California’s economy in the foot. (The California Redevelopment Agency and redevelopment agencies of Madera County and Moreno Valley filed a lawsuit in December 2008 challenging the constitutionality of the state’s $350 million raid. A hearing on the case’s merits will be held March 6, 2009, in Sacramento Superior Court.)

Third, in the aftermath of AB 32 and SB 375, it’s going to be a busy year with a great deal of expected regulatory activity related to climate change. As an organiza tion, we are going to be very active and vigilant in the regulatory processes to make sure that the results are compatible with what the state has already put in place, including the extensive local government consultation requirements of existing laws. Any criteria that are set must take into account the practical realities of cities’ financial limitations. The League is prepared to work with state leaders to ensure that efforts in response to climate change are rolled out in a thoughtful, prudent manner that carefully considers economic realities and the current budget environment.

And fourth, in order for the state to prosper, it must find a way to govern itself more effectively. The Legislature’s inability to pass a balanced budget on time or address its structural fiscal deficit has destabilized local governments by creating uncertainty. It’s in the long-term interests of our state and our local communities to have a state budget process that actually works. It’s time for the state to get its act together fiscally and operationally.

These four points form the foundation of the League’s 2009 strategic goals, which are:

Protect Funding for Vital Community Services. Vigorously oppose any state efforts to erode funding for vital community services. Oppose proposals to borrow or reduce any local revenue source, including the property tax, the redevelopment agency (RDA) tax increment, sales tax, Proposition 42 funding or any other local financial resources needed for critical community projects and services.

Promote Economic Stimulus and Infrastructure Investment. Promote expansion of federal, state and local investment in transportation, water and other infrastructure projects that will provide immediate jobs and economic benefits for the state of California. Strongly oppose efforts to divert, reduce or steal RDA funding that is the most significant source of infrastructure investment and economic stimulus in the state today.

Support Sustainable Communities. Support the efforts of city and state leaders to build and redevelop sustainable communities that strike a necessary and achievable balance between economic growth and environmental protection. Advance sensible community sustainability within a framework of local land use control, reasonable implementation of AB 32 and SB 375, increased water supply and conservation, and reform of the profoundly broken Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA) process. Support policies that promote the increased use of renewable energy resources and public transit.

Promote Reform of State Governance, Budget and Fiscal Systems. Build partnerships for reform of the laws affecting the governance of California state government, including the timely adoption of a balanced state budget, to strengthen the ability and responsibility of the executive and legislative branches to perform their necessary and proper roles in our system of state government. Support proposals that provide local policy-makers with the fiscal tools and local control necessary to deliver critical local services.

In this column, I address the second goal in detail. In future columns, League Executive Director Chris McKenzie and I will discuss the other goals at greater length.

Economic Stimulus and Infrastructure Investment

At the state level, the League is pursuing the expedited allocation of the infrastruc ture bonds. And in Washington, D.C., the League is advocating for a number of economic stimulus proposals primarily focused on helping us rebuild various types of transportation and water-related infrastructure. At the federal level, we are also focusing on getting additional tools and resources to help local govern ments respond to the challenges of climate change.

The League is urging Congress and the Obama administration to provide economic stimulus to our lagging economy by providing funding for:

  • The Energy and Environmental Efficiency Block Grant program for infrastructure and green jobs;
  • Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program for infrastructure;
  • Highway and transit infrastructure;
  • Water and wastewater infrastructure;
  • Public housing modernization and support for low-income and affordable housing; and
  • Public safety jobs and technology.

Energy and Environmental Efficiency

California ’s cities are collaborating with state and regional partners to implement sustainable community strategies that increase energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. To effectively accomplish these goals, the League is urging Congress to:

  • Support full funding of the Energy and Environmental Efficiency Block Grant program, authorized in the Energy Policy Act of 2007. This will provide resources directly to local governments for programs that improve community energy efficiency, develop and implement community and transportation energy conservation programs, and promote and develop alternative and renewable energy sources;
  • Support climate-friendly transportation and land-use policies that assist local governments, integrate new growth into existing communities, and develop transit-oriented, bicycle and pedestrian-friendly communities utilizing green building design and construction to maximize resources and reduce energy consumption; and
  • Ensure that local governments can continue --- and not be pre-empted in --- their efforts to decrease carbon emissions.

Community Development Block Grant Program

The League is asking Congress to support increased funding for the CDBG program, a critical tool to help urban and rural cities throughout California create jobs, provide affordable housing, eliminate blight and generate new economic investment. The League is also seeking flexibility in the CDBG state program to enhance use of the program by California’s 314 non-entitlement cities (those with populations of less than 50,000).

Highway and Transit Infrastructure

California has more than 45,000 miles of highway and one of the most developed transit systems in the nation. Our transportation systems are facing rapidly growing vehicle use by an ever-increasing number of new drivers, and the cost of building new lane miles has risen much faster than inflation. The need for road maintenance increases with the age of the freeway system. California’s cities are responsible for administering the local streets and roads that connect with the state and federal highway system. As Congress begins to consider the reauthorization of the nation’s highway and transit laws, the League is urging Congress to:

  • Support federal legislative efforts to reduce congestion and create jobs, using tools such as transit-oriented development that bring together transportation, land use planning, energy, the environment, and housing and economic development strategies;
  • Make reconstructing and preserving the existing street, road and highway system a high priority for expenditures;
  • Target funds for maintenance to local agencies, which are charged with administering the system; and
  • Support federal transportation legislation that fully utilizes a federal, state and local partnership to develop multi-modal transportation solutions to reduce congestion, streamline transportation project delivery and integrate transportation planning solutions for the nation’s highway, rail, air and port freight systems to achieve more efficient goods movement.

Water Infrastructure

California cities’ water and wastewater systems need a significant overhaul. There has been almost no new invest ment in California’s water and wastewater systems in more than 30 years. This puts increasing pressure on the state, because California’s population is expected to add 10 million people by 2020. In addition, local communities are working to meet new, more stringent standards for safe drinking water and clean water. The League is urging Congress to provide adequate and reliable long-term funding for municipal water delivery, maintenance and treatment needs to meet federally mandated water quality standards and maintain the vital infrastructure necessary to ensure the availability of clean water for an increasing population.

Affordable Housing

As the state’s population continues to grow and California grapples with the effects of the national mortgage crisis, our cities are deeply concerned about the need for affordable housing. The League is urging Congress to fund and support a number of programs to help stabilize communities with the highest foreclosure rates in the nation and create affordable housing for low-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities. In addition, the League is seeking the creation of new initiatives that provide affordable housing to working families and the work force. It’s also advocating for tax incentives to promote investment in the production of multifamily rental housing, including expanding the Low- Income Housing Tax Credit to create mixed-income developments.

Public Safety

California ’s cities are on the front line of the war on terrorism and crime. To strengthen California’s homeland security, emergency preparedness and crime-fighting efforts, the League is urging Congress to:

  • Support increased federal investment in resources critical to local law enforcement, including full funding for the Local Law Enforcement Block Grant and the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, as well as integrated public safety communications systems;
  • Maximize first-responder funding to California cities, as well as flexibility in using funds to assist areas of need, such as personnel and training;
  • Fully fund the Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program; and
  • Increase funding for disaster preparedness, prevention, recovery and response for all-hazard threats, including investment in assisting communities with necessary upgrades to existing flood control systems.

All Hands on Deck

We know that 2009 is going to be a year when all of us are tested to the fullest. We are already being tested by the economic situation. Furthermore, we know the Legislature’s historical propensity for pushing its problems onto someone else and looking for an escape hatch, and it doesn’t bode well for cities.

But these challenges also present opportunities. We must be aggressive in looking for ways to advance job growth at the local level and promote economic development. As local leaders, we have to get the state back on its feet. The economic recovery will happen one step at a time --- business by business and infrastructure project by infrastructure project --- in our local communities. We need all hands on deck.