- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

I saw a familiar face among the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ delegation at the White House last week begging for critical funds from the $800 billion stimulus package, which its membership argues will have the greatest impact “where the rubber meets the road.”

So says William D. Euille, the Democratic mayor of Alexandria and formerly our senior class president, who was so busy digging for dollars from the White House to Congress to the state House in Richmond that it took me two days to catch up with this stressed public servant on his cell phone.

Unlike senators and representatives, who can pontificate until their next holiday break, governors and mayors, like Mr. Euille, don’t have time to play “gotcha” games. They have to make sure that the garbage is picked up, the icy roads are salted and that the schools have working heaters.

“The failure [of Congress] to act responsibly and rapidly [on the stimulus package] will cause many cities and towns to go bankrupt,” Mr. Euille said.

This is what is meant by “all politics is local.” As the resources are dwindling, owing in part to unemployment and declining home values, residents are asking for more services. And they go to the local social service agencies first.

“We’re the ones in the trenches and know people who are hurting,” Mr. Euille said. “The folks on the Hill are so far removed, and they are not out there everyday having people knock on your door or seeing them in the neighborhoods, so I jumped at the chance to go [to the White House and Congress] … because they need to hear from us.”

Not only is Mr. Euille seeking money headed to cash-strapped states (should the final stimulus package restore some of the $40 billion in state aid that the Senate eliminated), this mayor, like so many others, also has to lobby statewide leaders to get a fair share for local “shovel-ready” projects aimed at forestalling layoffs and creating new jobs.

To that end, Mr. Euille, who also is a member of the Virginia Municipal League, said he would like to see Congress send some of the stimulus funding directly to municipalities to bypass statewide competition and potentially more political favoritism.

Well, we can all wish. Who wouldn’t wish for rich politicians to put their tired tricks aside and act as though folks, down here on the ground, are indeed faced with an economic crisis?

As Mr. Euille suggested, they need “to stop bickering and come to their senses,” and pass what’s most prudent in the stimulus package for the short term that will create jobs so we can see fewer of our family, friends and neighbors lose jobs and their houses. Those long-term line-by-line items that have debatably been deemed “pork” can be saved for a later fight, he said.

But it’s increasingly difficult for Jack and Jill Q. Public to hear beyond the tired theatrics to determine what’s reasonable and prudent and will, as President Obama pledges, create jobs.

Josh Bivens, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, has posted information contrasting the benefits of various stimulus provisions, based on information from Moody’s Economy.com. For every dollar spent, he indicates the return is $1.73 for food stamps, $1.64 for extended unemployment benefits, $1.59 for infrastructure spending and $1.39 for aid to states.

In contrast: for every dollar spent, he indicates the return would be 37 cents for making dividend and capital-gains tax cuts permanent, 30 cents for corporate tax cuts and 29 cents for making the Bush administration tax cuts permanent.

We know that the official unemployment rate is higher than it’s been in decades, but some economists note that among certain sectors, such as minority males, the unofficial rate can be as high as 20 percent.

According to the National League of Cities, 84 percent of cities reported facing fiscal difficulties, the highest percentage since the group started doing surveys in 1985.

The mayors have a “Ready to Go” report that details 18,750 local infrastructure projects in 779 cities which, the league says, represent an investment of $150 billion and would create 1.6 million jobs in 2009 and 2010.

Some states and localities have already laid off workers or forced them to take furloughs, as in Prince George’s County. The league estimates that 69 percent of municipalities have instituted hiring freezes or layoffs, while 42 percent are delaying or canceling infrastructure projects. Another 22 percent have instituted across-the-board cuts.

To offset cost, nearly half are increasing charges for services, while 28 percent are increasing the number of fees, according to the league’s data, which also states that fewer cities are raising taxes.

Some, however, would suggest that those increased “fees” constitute increased levies. And some taxpayer watchdog groups vehemently argue that there are still billions in government waste and “ax-ready” programs.

Most of the mayors, like Mr. Euille, are facing budget shortfalls, but they are not seeking the recovery funds to plug those gaps, caused primarily by collecting lower revenue from business and real estate taxes owing to the economic downturn.

Although Alexandria is not hurting as much as some others, the city faces a $10.5 million shortfall and has cut services and personnel.

Mr. Euille reiterated that localities cannot use funds from the stimulus package for general operating costs. However, they may take funding already allocated for infrastructure and transportation projects, some of which have been delayed, and exchange it for other public services.

No wonder Mr. Obama was in Florida and Small Town USA this week seeking support from mayors and governors, some of them Republican such as those in hard-hit areas of Connecticut, Vermont and California.

“Governors understand our economic crisis as well as anyone; they’re on the front lines dealing with it every day. And [Florida] Governor [Charlie] Crist shares my conviction that creating jobs and turning this economy around is a mission that transcends party,” Mr. Obama said. “When the town is burning, we don’t check party labels. Everyone needs to grab a hose. Governor Crist and governors across the country understand that. Mayors across the country understand that. And I think you understand that, too.”

Again Mr. Obama warned, as he did during Monday’s prime-time press conference, “the jobs of firefighters, teachers, nurses and police officers … would otherwise be eliminated if we don’t provide states with some relief.”

Sound familiar? Look familiar? But politicians at every level need to be mindful that there is nothing that feels familiar about this recession for folks where “the rubber meets the road.”

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