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Crime, jobs, mandates: NLC report on local officials' top concerns; Banks calls findings 'a contract for Americans.' (National League of Cities President Carolyn Long Banks)

Assuring public safety, curbing unfunded federal mandates, and building strong local economies are the most important priorities for America's cities and towns, according to the National League of Cities' annual opinion survey of municipal officials.

"This agenda-safety, governmental accountability and a sound economy-reflects what is most important now and for the future well-being of our nation's cities and towns. It represents a "Contract for Americans" that unites local government leaders throughout the country," said NLC President Carolyn Long Banks, councilwoman-at-large of Atlanta.

"These are local issues with a national dimension," she said. "When asked to select an issue they would bring to a White House summit meeting on the future of cities and towns, the respondents chose the same three: mandates, crime and jobs."

"Making progress on these will make the most difference, for the most good, for the most people -- far more than anything else, including tax cuts. That's because these are the essential ingredients for a real and lasting empowerment of our citizens and our communities, and that's where the future strength and prosperity of our nation begins," she said.

The NLC survey, conducted in October and November, found a cluster of public safety issues at the forefront of current problems and future concerns on the minds of local government leaders. The findings are based on responses by 382 elected municipal officials drawn from a random sample in cities with populations of 10,000 or more.

Five of the top six conditions identified by local officials as most deteriorated over the past five years involved crime and violence: youth crime, gangs, violent crime, drugs, and school violence. Three of the ten "most important conditions to address" in the next two years relate to public safety: violent crime, youth crime and gangs.

Unfunded mandates -- laws or regulations imposed on cities, but without funding by federal or state governments -- continued as the top single issue adversely affecting local governments. Mandates led three lists: conditions which worsened in 1994, which deteriorated the most over the past five years, and which were most important to address in the next two years.

Nearly half of the survey respondents reported improving local economic conditions for the second year in a row. At the same time, attention to economic matters remained a major concern for the future, appearing in four of most important issues to address in the next two years.

The survey compiled some stark findings about crime, violence and public safety. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents (63 percent) said youth crime worsened during the past year, and more than half reported worsening conditions involving school violence (52 percent and gangs (51 percent). Forty-nine percent said drug problems worsened during the past year, and 41 percent said violent crime worsened.

Asked to identify the conditions which deteriorated most over the past five years, 35 percent of the officials put unfunded mandates on their "top 3" list, followed by youth crime (31 percent), gangs (26 percent), violent crime (25 percent), drugs (19 percent) and school violence (18 percent).

In a follow-up question about ways to improve public safety, the survey revealed a strong preference among local officials for a mix of strategies designed to achieve desired outcomes instead of focusing strictly on enforcement or prevention.

Asked to select measures most likely to reduce crime, the top choice -- strengthening and supporting family stability, selected by 64 percent -- reflects an growing sentiment that public safety needs to be considered in a much broader context than traditional anti-crime solutions. The next highest choice -- jobs and targeted economic development, selected by 48 percent -- revealed another facet of new thinking.

The next four choices -- more police officers (40 percent), after-school programs (33 percent), neighborhood watch programs (32 percent) and more police foot patrols (32 percent) -- brought in a combination of law enforcement and crime prevention techniques more commonly thought of.

The five measures selected least as likely to reduce crime were: more death penalties (8 percent), building more prisons (8 percent), elimination of parole (10 percent), gun control (12 percent), and citizens reporting crime (12 percent).

"The concept that emerges from these responses is a belief that I have espoused for many years: namely, that we must shake loose from our conventional attitudes and thinking about public safety. We need to examine everything that helps to create and maintain safe, secure homes, neighborhoods and cities," said Banks.

"The survey also suggests that some things may already be happening in this regard. When asked about conditions that have improved most of the past five years, local officials mentioned police-community relations most often. Rethinking traditional approaches to crime, violence and law enforcement can play a pivotal role in making that happen," she said.

"I have chosen public safety as the primary focus in my work as president of the National League of Cities. We will draw upon this information as a resource in the implementation of local public safety programs as well as any further consideration of the 1994 federal anti- crime law by the new Congress."

Noting the enormous hostility among local officials towards unfunded mandates, Banks praised the Senate and House leadership for their swift action on mandates relief legislation. Banks and other leaders of state and local government appeared at a congressional hearing on the second day of the new session to offer their joint support for S.1, a comprehensive mandate relief bill sponsored by Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho), and companion legislation in the House.

"There are strong expectations that this legislation could be on President Clinton's desk for signature before the month is over, and that will be a day to remember," said Banks. "Mandate relief is essential to governmental accountability, responsibility and credibility. It will enable our citizens to know what's happening with their taxes and who's deciding it."

While local economic conditions and city fiscal conditions have recovered significantly over the past two years, local officials remain very attentive to issues related to jobs, economic capacity and municipal finance.

Four of the ten most frequently mentioned concerns for the next two years are related to local economies: city fiscal conditions, overall economic conditions, infrastructure and unemployment.

Nearly half of the survey group (48 percent) said local economic conditions improved during 1994, and nearly the same assessment of improvement (46 percent) came in the response to unemployment levels.

At the same time, nearly one fifth of the respondents said their communities had experienced worsening economic conditions (22 percent) and worsening unemployment (19 percent).

"These findings provide further evidence that our national economy is not a single large, uniform entity that can be described with a single set of numbers or managed with a single policy," said Donald J. Borut, NLC executive director. "All economics is local, and the socalled national indicators and policies need to pay greater attention to the differences that exist instead of assuming that one description or solution fits any situation."

The signs of a strengthening economy were also reflected in the assessment of municipal service levels by local officials. More than half (53 percent) said they were able to maintain or increase service levels during 1994, and nearly two-thirds (63 percent) said they expected to maintain service levels in 1995 without having to increases taxes or fees. The survey also asked how well current service levels measured up against local needs in the community, and nearly four out of five respondents (78 percent) rated their service levels as "good" or "very good."

"That's tells us several things," said Borut. "It indicates that some of the fiscal pressures of recent years have eased, and it suggests that local officials have been finding better ways to provide some of these services."

One of the ways that many communities are stretching resources to provide services is through regional initiatives with neighboring jurisdictions. The survey asked about the importance of regional cooperation in helping local governments achieve their goals, and nearly seven out of eight respondents (86 percent) said it was important or very important.

"Local government leaders are learning that political boundaries need not confine the approaches they take to improving services or solving problems," said Borut. "Information technology represents one of the most important tools for improving their access to new ideas and information. In this regard, nearly 78 percent of these local officials said their community is working on or thinking about a telecommunications policy to put their community and their citizens on the information superhighway."

The NLC survey findings, based on 382 responses, provide a 95 percent degree of confidence that answers will vary by no more than 5 percent from the results that would be obtained in responses from all elected officials in those communities. Herbert L. Green Jr., NLC research manager, prepared the survey conducted the analysis, with assistance from the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich., which coded and tabulated the results.

Public Safety Measures That Are Most Likely To Reduce Crime
Strengthening and supporting family stability 63.6%
Jobs and targeted economic development 48.4%
More police officers 39.8%
After-school programs 33.0%
Neighborhood Watch programs 33.0%
More police foot patrols 32.2%
School-to-Work programs 31.2%
More recreational programs 30.4%
Early childhood education (e.g. Head Start) 29.8%
Reintroducing punishment into schools 18.1%
Mandatory sentencing 17.8%
Conflict resolution programs 17.0%
Court/bail reform 16.8%
Funding of drug treatment 14.9%
Boot Camps 13.1%
Citizens reporting crime 12.0%
Gun control 11.8%
Elimination of parole 9.9%
Building more prisons 8.4%
More death penalties 8.1%

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Author:Arndt, Randy
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Jan 23, 1995
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