Halfway through a year that looks set to be “an inflection point,” U.S. city leaders are most concerned about infrastructure, their budgets, and public safety, according to the State of the Cities 2021 report from the National League of Cities.
“We’re still a long way from normal,” said NLC CEO Clarence Anthony, presenting the findings.
“While infrastructure debates in Washington right now feel like partisan policy, the data shows that delaying infrastructure investments hurts every single community in this country,” Anthony said. “Local leaders need a long-term commitment and investment to restore and rebuild our hometowns. I cannot emphasize enough that every single dollar allocated to local governments as part of the American Rescue Plan is essential.”
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Despite its name, the NLC survey drew from respondents in the urban core, in exurban and suburban areas, and in rural ones, which make up the largest cohort.
Infrastructure needs were the biggest priority for the 2021 tally. Roughly one-quarter of respondents reported delayed public works projects, and roads and bridges were most frequently cited component as experiencing “declining quality,” NLC said. Nearly all of the respondents said that insufficient funding was a factor in their decisions about infrastructure.
The pandemic also made clear that some modern amenities we often take for granted, including clean water and open spaces, are critical. But community leaders and the NLC alike note that the pandemic exacerbated inequities, and parks and open spaces are one manifestation of that pattern.
“There are 100 million residents without access to a park within a 10-minute walk from their home and even for those with access, the quality of parks differs significantly. Parks that serve nonwhite residents are generally much smaller and serve a much larger population as compared to parks in majority white communities,” NLC noted, citing Trust for Public Land data.
Budgets were the second-biggest priority in the 2021 report, NLC said, calling it unsurprising. COVID-19 “decimated city budgets,” the group said, with 41% of respondents reporting a decline in general fund revenues. Some 17% said declining revenue was one of the most critical issues facing their communities.
Broadly, fee revenue from things like parking and entertainment, suffered more than taxes did. But many communities, including San Diego and Dallas, avoided raising property taxes on residents, fearing the added financial hardship would be too much for some households.
Public safety came in third on the list of city leader priorities, although respondents in the urban core called it their number-one pick. But after the turbulence of 2020, discussions about public safety are more nuanced.
“If the pandemic weren’t enough, 2020 brought horrible acts of racial injustice that prompted millions across the nation to pour into the streets and cry out for change,” Mayor Harold Weinbrecht, of Cary, North Carolina, told NLC.
The report makes clear that other community leaders recognize that as well.
“America’s cities continue to work toward more comprehensive public safety solutions in response to calls for racial justice and demands to reimagine public safety,” the group wrote.
It’s important to point out, as NLC does, that “general trends indicate that crime has not increased significantly, but some places are experiencing upticks in violent crimes.” Roughly six in 10 city officials said that crime in their communities had decreased (11%) or experienced no change (48%) over the past year. Even among urban core respondents, only four in 10 reported an increase.
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