Big-City Leaders Call Stimulus a Fine Start

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 17, 2009

NEW YORK -- New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) has said the federal money from the economic stimulus plan could save 14,000 teacher jobs and 1,000 police officer positions he had planned to cut. The money could expand the subway system, avert hospital closures and create a new urban economy surrounding energy retrofitting, according to other officials.

Across the country, urban leaders and advocates say the stimulus plan that President Obama is to sign Tuesday will create jobs in cities and blunt the impact of the economic crash. But they hope the funding package only begins to hint at the ambitious urban policy agenda Obama has articulated.

"It's a down payment," said Trenton Mayor Douglas H. Palmer (D), the past president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. "But we're certainly on the right track."

Obama is the first president in decades to come from a major city, and he promised during his campaign to create a new kind of urban policy viewing cities not as the problem but as the solution. The stimulus package is the first step toward fulfilling that vision -- and the first indication of the difficulties he may face in making it work.

The plan grants urban advocates some of what they have requested for years, including more money for anti-poverty programs such as for low-income schoolchildren and Medicaid. There are billions more for mass transit and public housing.

Some money that is not specifically targeted for urban areas, such as research grants and billions for programs to retrofit buildings to be energy-efficient, are likely to disproportionately benefit cities. A billion dollars also is allocated to improve accuracy for the 2010 census, which many urban officials believe will more accurately count city residents.

The Obama administration has been "incredibly refreshing" on urban issues, said Miami Mayor Manuel A. Diaz (D), president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has met half a dozen times with Obama's top advisers since December. "It's pretty clear that there's going to be a whole new day," Diaz said.

But some analysts cautioned that, for the most part, the funding in the stimulus plan just pumps new money through old formulas without making big conceptual changes.

"In terms of cutting-edge, breakthrough stuff -- it was hard to find," said Robert D. Yaro, a co-chair of America 2050, a national strategy group for economic development and infrastructure. "People on the one hand want transformation and change, but everyone wants the immediate stimulus, and what we're finding is it's really hard to make fundamental change without taking the time to do it."

Some key funds to benefit cities, such as more money for education, were lost in the compromise plan. And with tens of billions routed through state governments, some policy analysts said the funding is likely to miss its goal of reviving urban economies.

"The states tend to distribute money evenly across the state, not in the cities, where the economic engine is and where you'll get the most bang for your buck," said Robert Puentes, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. "If we are trying to stimulate the nation's economy, we should put the money where the economy exists."

Historically, stimulus and jobs programs have included a focus on cities. In the 1930s, the federal government set up a Works Progress Administration for each of the states -- and another solely for New York City, to administer large-scale projects such as building bridges, tunnels and airports and creating health-care centers.

Now New York officials are hoping for a new shift in priorities toward urban areas, as Congress supports long-deferred pet projects.

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means, said he has been lobbying since the administration of President Gerald R. Ford for an infusion of funds to help the country's neediest communities. His idea started to take shape with President Bill Clinton's empowerment zones and has received some new life with Recovery Zone funding in the stimulus package, which allows areas with high unemployment, poverty and home-foreclosure rates to qualify for special bonds.

Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) has long advocated for federal funding for new police officers. The stimulus plan provides $1 billion to hire more than 5,000 new police officers, including hundreds likely for New York.

"We're concerned about rising crime because of the declining economy," Weiner said. "Bill Clinton made it part of his signature crime bill, and at the time it really worked."

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), who sits on the House Transportation Committee, succeeded in the House bill in increasing the allocation for mass transit to $11 billion, mainly to the benefit of cities. The compromise version of the plan allocated only $8 billion but added a competitive grant that could be used for transit.

"It's tremendous," Nadler said. "But it's not enough."

As a candidate, the president talked about a new way of looking at cities. Obama, who has lived in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, where he was a community organizer, said cities should not be seen as impoverished and decaying, but as vital centers of larger metropolitan areas. In a speech last June to mayors, he noted that the top 100 metropolitan areas generate two-thirds of the country's jobs. He said he would not confuse "anti-poverty policy" with "a metropolitan strategy."

"This is who he is," said Robert Weissbourd, who chaired the urban and metropolitan policy committee of the Obama campaign and has since returned to the private sector.

Marcia J. Van Wagner, the deputy comptroller for budget for New York City, said it will take a leader like this to overcome years of disinvestment.

"The federal government has extricated itself from local infrastructure spending," she said. "There used to be more federal money for water treatment, mass transit, public housing, all of these things that over the last 25 years have shrunk. The localities have had to take over responsibility for these infrastructure systems, and it's expensive."

Weiner said he is hopeful. "It's clear in this bill that there's a new sheriff in town, and the administration and Congress understand the needs of urban areas," he said. "One bill and a few weeks of an administration does not a legacy make, but it sure does seem like seeing the light at the end of a tunnel."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company