Denver Mayor Wellington E. Webb
Inaugural Address as President of
The U.S. Conference of Mayors

Date: June 15, 1999
Location: The 67th Annual Conference of Mayors in New Orleans, LA

"EMPOWERING OUR CITIES"

Let me first congratulate Mayor Corradini for an outstanding year of vigorous leadership. Deedee, it has been a pleasure serving as your Vice President. You have been an asset to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and to this nation with your energy and creativity.

I am looking forward to working in the same positive spirit with Vice President Coles, with Chair of the Advisory Board Mayor Morial, with Tom Cochran and the Conference staff, and with every mayor who is part of this organization.

As mayors, we have tried to do our part. We are reclaiming our cities as places of opportunity, as places where people can live, work, enjoy recreational activities, and mingle with friends and family.

The foundation of this strategy is our focus on basic city services, such as picking up the trash, maintaining the streets, enhancing efficiency and customer service, and putting our fiscal houses in order.

On this foundation are four cornerstones:

First, mayors are restoring public safety in our cities with strong law enforcement and prevention. The first responsibility of any city is to protect its citizens. That is true now and that will always be true. We must never forget that. As incoming President of the United States Conference of Mayors, I will continue to place public safety at the top of our agenda. That includes issues relating to school violence, the abuse of drugs and alcohol, and guns.

Second, we are energetically supporting our kids and schools. Whether we are directly overseeing school districts or assisting and pushing our independent districts to meet their responsibilities, our premise is the same - You cannot have a successful city if you have failing schools;

Third, we are expanding and improving our parks and open space, and transforming neglected and contaminated acreage into spaces where residents and visitors can relax and congregate and enjoy their hard-earned leisure time, with our art and cultural and sports amenities which make cities special; and

Fourth, we are developing new strategies for economic development. Working in partnership with our business community, we are revitalizing once dormant downtowns, and we are working hard to spread this success to our distressed neighborhoods and to create job opportunities, with decent wages, for all of our citizens.

Having established, forcefully and persuasively, that cities matter, not just for urban residents, but for every American, then we can begin to discuss a new partnership between cities and our state and federal governments.

Every new partnership involves a bargain that each side will fulfill a new set of obligations.

Our obligation, as CEO’s of our cities, is to stay on course with the foundation and cornerstones I just outlined and to run our cities like private businesses but with a public mission. And we should be called to task when we fail to operate in this manner.

That means that, as mayors, we must continue to distinguish ourselves as reformers and as leaders in the New Economy.

We cannot return to business as usual. We must remain committed to embracing competition and the efficiencies of the marketplace in the expenditure of our public dollars.

And that means that we need to play a bigger role in national economic policy debates that affect our interests – such as trade and telecommunications deregulation.

It is also means that the U.S. Conference of Mayors as an organization must reach out to every individual and group that brings good ideas and a bold vision on behalf of our cities.

We need to sharpen our image so that it reflects the innovation and creativity of our cities and our local leadership, so that we are recognized as the center of new ideas and practical solutions to problems as diverse as welfare, competitiveness, and growth. And we need to bury forever the old image of mayors with a tin cup and an extended palm asking for handouts to sustain and expand cumbersome bureaucracies. Now we are calling for the resources and the flexibility and the incentives to promote economic empowerment, create wealth, and link our citizens on a regionwide basis to housing and employment opportunities.

So we have changed. And we will continue to do so.

But this new partnership also requires that the federal and state governments change the way they do business as well, as it relates to the cities.

That means investments that are sound. And that means "do no harm".

In many ways, the federal government, and some state governments, have been enormously helpful and inventive.

But, on balance, we must acknowledge that the urban agenda remains a low priority in Congress and in most state legislatures throughout the nation.

Too often, Congress expresses confidence in government that is "closest to the people", yet federal regulations continue to impose unfunded mandates on local government that cost us billions of dollars every year.

And only rarely have we achieved the necessary flexibility to spend the money as we see fit - to serve the needs of our residents - without cumbersome restrictions and expensive regulatory requirements.

Moreover, we continue to be hurt by federal policies that have the effect of pushing people and businesses and resources out of our urban communities and toward development on the fringes of our metropolitan areas.

That is the kind of "dumb growth" that is expensive, inefficient, and harmful to our nation.

This doesn't make sense.

But it does present us, as mayors, with an opportunity.

An opportunity to establish a new and historic agenda in Washington and in state capitols across our nation.

What should this new agenda consist of?

I will be focusing on 3 priorities during my Administration, and, in the coming days, I will be asking several of you to join me in leadership roles in these areas:

They are:

  • Smart Growth and Regional Cooperation;

  • Promoting the Competitive Assets of the Cities; and

  • Investing in our Working Families.

In three weeks, I will be distributing a document that describes each of these initiatives in more detail, but I want to highlight several key elements to this agenda.

Let me say, we applaud those who have embraced in broad terms the language of these priorities, and have acknowledged the challenges that cities face. But the real test for this new urban agenda is in the details and in the implementation.

Here are 9 specific agenda items that we will be putting forth as a challenge for the federal government and the states, and as a scorecard for the Presidential candidates.

Smart Growth

In the area of smart growth, my priorities are based on the principle that we need to "level the playing field" for our centrally located and older cities:

Number One: Reforms in Transportation Policy. Federal and state departments of transportation and metropolitan planning organizations should disclose annually where their investments go. It's the public's money, and they are entitled to know how it's being spent. We require banks to tell us where they lend money; we should hold our transportation bureaucracies to the same standard.

And the federal government must enforce the provisions in TEA-21 that require metropolitan planning organizations to emphasize repair and investment in their patterns of spending. Federal enforcement to date has been toothless.

In addition, the public sector needs to forge new partnerships with the private sector, particularly the capital markets, to fund new transit projects. The federal Department of Transportation has an opportunity to pioneer innovative forms of financing.

Number Two: Metro governance. We are a nation of regional communities and regional economies. But only in transportation are we beginning to recognize the metropolitan nature of markets. We treat housing markets and labor markets as if they stop neatly at local borders when we know - in our daily lives - that this is not the case.

The current system for providing housing vouchers and public housing units does not reflect this new reality. It is administered by 3,400 local bureaucracies which makes it difficult, if not impossible, for our low-income families to exercise their choices in a metropolitan housing market.

And the same is true for employment and training. It is well established that many of our citizens, particularly in our urban areas, are ready and willing to work, but they are not being linked to the jobs that exist, often in the suburban areas. We have metropolitan economies, but our workforce programs are being administered by sub-regional boards that identify local but not regionwide employment opportunities.

Number Three: Smart Tax Policy. Federal and state policies need to increase incentives for revitalizing older communities, which would decrease development pressure on rural communities. Federal and state tax incentives could be used to boost homeownership in distressed neighborhoods. Here are 3 options: a targeted, first-time homebuyer tax credit, like the one that exists for the District of Columbia; a targeted homeownership tax credit like the one introduced recently by Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island; and a historic homeownership tax credit, like the one proposed by Dick Moe, President of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

And with regard to rural communities, tax incentives should be used to offer owners of land threatened by development with alternatives to sale and subdivision.

Promoting Our Cities' Competitive Assets

Now let me turn to the subject of Promoting our Cities' Competitive Assets. We know that we have assets in our distressed neighborhoods, both in central cities and in many suburbs. These assets include untapped markets, existing institutions, and unused land; the agenda I will be submitting puts forth 3 priorities to help our distressed communities leverage their assets.

Number One: Investments.

We must take the necessary steps to encourage investment in our distressed neighborhoods.

That means Access to Capital, that means Market Information, and that means Equity Investments.

As everybody in this room knows, we need to protect the Community Reinvestment Act. For the past two decades, the CRA has been a critically important tool for central cities and low-income neighborhoods to ensure market capital for housing and urban development. As an organization, the U.S. Conference of Mayors will continue to strongly oppose efforts to dilute the coverage of CRA and diminish the role of the regulators, and, at the same time, we will work to strengthen its impact.

Business and community leaders also need a new Neighborhood Investment Source that provides a positive picture of investment opportunities in distressed area markets. Traditional census tract data paints an inaccurate and excessively negative picture regarding business opportunities in our urban markets.

The federal and state governments should use tax incentives to support the efforts of community development corporations and private investment funds to rebuild urban markets. I applaud the Administrations' Emerging Tax credit proposal. It's a welcome step in this direction.

Number Two: Flexible Funding. This is extremely important to mayors. Federal and state policies should be redesigned to give us the flexibility to meet the needs of our citizens. In particular, I will be proposing a community tax initiative that provides local governments with a specific amount of federal tax incentives that we can structure - as wage credits or housing credits or infrastructure spending - as we see appropriate for our unique circumstances and priorities. In addition, we will be calling upon the federal government to allow local governments to dedicate a portion of our intergovernmental transfers (such as block grants and discretionary awards) for priorities that we set as local leaders.

Number Three: Land Assembly. We will be calling for increased investment in the acquisition, cleanup and reuse of vacant land in older communities. This will build upon the successful efforts by this organization with regard to brownfields.

Investing in Working Families

Finally, I'd like to discuss Investing in Working Families. It is a fundamental principle of this nation that work will pay. That means that the millions of low and moderate-income Americans who get up and work hard every day, pay their bills, care for their children, contribute to their community, and play by the rules should enjoy a decent standard of living. In addition, it means that as we move folks from welfare to work, we need to address not only employment and training issues, but also issues such as child care and transportation.

We'll be focusing on 3 priorities for expanding the opportunities of working families

Number One: Outreach efforts. States have been given enormous latitude in administration of programs that lift working families out of poverty. But many states have failed to exercise this flexibility with any sustained focus or discipline. For example, states administer the Children's Health Insurance Program, which was designed for working poor families who earn too much to quality for Medicaid. But only 11% of the $8.4 billion dollars allocated over the past two years under this program has been spent. That is unacceptable. Federal polices should establish incentives for states to design easy-to-use enrollment forms and creative outreach efforts and work closely with us at the local level. South Carolina, for example, has made simple enrollment forms available in pharmacies, day care centers and schools; and they found 40,000 eligible children.

Number Two: Extend Welfare Reform. Our states have enormous reserves in the TANF program. At the same time, the remaining welfare caseloads are disproportionately located in our cities. The states have the flexibility to use their TANF dollars much more creatively - to target the concentration of urban poverty, and to assist working families, not just those moving off welfare.

The federal government can encourage such behavior in several ways: finding new ways to reward innovative states, disclosing information on urban caseloads, simplifying TANF regulations, and publicizing new TANF rules that provide more flexibility in spending.

Number Three: Invest in Children. It is well-established that early childhood education and care pays for itself many times over. The federal government should pursue a plan for universal early childhood programs.

In the shorter-term, we need to create a less fragmented system of childcare, to eliminate the perverse disincentives that slash childcare assistance for low-income families who move from welfare to work or that deny assistance to the working poor who never went on welfare. The Childcare and Development Block Grant was enacted to do precisely that by consolidating four separate federal programs. Unfortunately, many states have failed to meet this challenge. States need to establish eligibility for childcare based on income alone, rather than making artificial distinctions between welfare and low-income families. They need to eliminate obstacles that often require parents to find a new providers or reapply for child care assistance as they move from welfare to work; and the federal government needs to increase funding for the child care and development block grant so that states have the flexibility and the resources to provide childcare assistance to both welfare recipients and low-income working families;

In addition, the federal government should consider consolidating the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit and the Child Care Tax Credit to establish a single, more targeted and fully refundable credit that would better serve low-to-moderate income families with pre-school age children.

Extending our Reach with New Partnerships

As we move forward on the initiatives I discussed, let me say something about the way we do business as an organization. It is important that we remain strongly committed to extending our reach by working with other important groups that share our goals.

Today, I am pleased to announce several exciting new partnerships to support these initiatives.

In the area of Smart Growth and Regional Cooperation, we will be working with the Brookings Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy. This will build upon the good work that is being done through the Joint Center for Sustainable Communities. Established in 1996, under the leadership of Bruce Katz, the Brookings Center has earned a reputation for creative and innovative and practical solutions to urban challenges. They have helped to reenergize and redefine the national policy debate about cities.

In the area of Competitive Assets of Cities, I am pleased to announce 3 very important partners - the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City, established by Professor Michael Porter of Harvard; the Social Compact, a Chicago-based coalition of business leaders, including Roger Joslin, the chairman of State Farm Fire and Casualty; and the National Urban League, under the outstanding leadership of Hugh Price. All three of these groups have done landmark work in promoting the market potential of our distressed neighborhoods.

And for our Working Families initiative, we will be partnering with the Progressive Policy Institute. Under the leadership of president Will Marshall, the Progressive Policy Institute has fashioned a thoughtful middle ground on a wide range of issue. As mayors, we know that ideological slogans don't solve problems. Good ideas do. The Progressive Policy Institute has produced, I think, some of the best thinking in the country on addressing the urgent challenges of our nation's working families.

In these five organizations, we have business leaders and policy experts, Republicans and Democrats, and representatives of every region in this great nation.

That is how it should be.

Let me say, also, that the timing is right for us to put forth a vigorous agenda on behalf of our cities.

First, we are in the early stages of a presidential campaign, only the second one in 32 years in which the incumbent President is not running.

That gives us an even better chance to help shape the future President's urban policies.

Second, we have a budget surplus for the first time in a generation.

That gives us a stronger foundation to argue for increased investments.

Third, we have, as mayors, the renewed confidence of the American people, who have a well-founded faith in local solutions to local challenges.

That strengthens our resolve to ask for greater flexibility in tailoring resources to the specific needs of our communities.

And, finally, we have, in this country, a greater awareness that, in the New Economy, markets are regional in scope and that therefore the politics of cities and suburbs is no longer a zero sum game.

That is why we are calling for a New Partnership...

  • that levels the playing field for older communities through smart growth policies,

  • that promotes and leverages existing assets in our distressed neighborhoods,

  • and that addresses the new challenges of America's working families.

A New Partnership that encompasses the full scope and potential of the great American City.

I look forward to working with each one of you in this historic effort.

Thank you.