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Local officials need relief from unfunded mandate burden.

In recent years, unfunded mandates on local governments, especially those imposed by the federal government, have become one of the single heaviest burdens on the nation's cities and towns. At the same time, funding from the federal and many state governments has decreased dramatically leaving local officials angry, frustrated and left to make impossible choices.

Four workshops at last week's NLC Congress of Cities explored in depth the many issues and possible solutions that surround that anger, frustration and the kinds of choices local government officials are making in the face of the critical issue of unfunded mandates.

The facilitator for these discussions was Janet Kelly, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio and a veteran of much of NLC's efforts on the issue of unfunded mandates at both the federal and state level.

Throughout the three-day discussion the attacks on unfunded mandates centered on:

* The inability of such mandates to provide local governments with the flexibility they need and should have to meet local conditions. This criticism continually assailed "the one-size fit-all, coolde-cutter approach," as Mayor Victor Ashe of Knoxville, Tenn. termed it, that is often found in federal regulations, especially in environmental programs. Mayor Knox told the delegates attending one of the sessions that 40 percent of the last property tax increase in his city was caused by unfunded mandates.

* The insensitivity of such mandates to recognize either the resources of local government and the relationship of those resources to what the community needs.

"The federal government takes you out dinner, orders for you and then hands you the check," Mayor Greg Lashutka told the delegates who participated in the sessions.

During the discussion, another delegate said in his city "kids won't have time to die from violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act because kids are killing kids while we don't have the money to provide more police because federal mandates are chewing up 30-50 percent of our budget."

* The way mandates from the state and federal level hand off the cost of very expensive programs to the level of government with the least tax capacity, local government.

Michael Sittig, assistant executive director of the Florida League of Cities, told participants, "We could have handled the 300 mandates handed down by the state during the '80's if local government had the tax capacity," instead of the "antique" tax capabilities under which Florida communities exist.

That frustration over state mandates and the inability of Florida municipalities to fund those mandates led to a Florida League of Cities-led, million dollar campaign for a Constitutional amendment to exempt municipalities from complying with any state-imposed mandate that is not funded.

The Florida League's efforts were spearheaded by a TV commercial that said, "Spending other people's money is called embezzlement and you can go to jail for it except in Tallahassee," the state capital.

* The way mandates irresponsibly frees the mandating level of government from the necessity of setting priorities and from accountability.

"I think the goal of most mandates is noble," Mayor Ashe told delegates, "The problem is in implementing those goals. But, if Congress thinks those goals are important enough, Congress ought to find a way to pay for it." He went on to say, "This is not a Democrat or Republican issue or a Liberal or Conservative issue. It's a funding local government issue."

Another delegate during the discussion said unfunded mandates eliminate accountability at the mandating level in that they try to separate the pleasure (of passing new popular programs) from the pain (of finding a way to fund those program).

During another session, Maryland League Director John Burrell put it another way. "We know there are a lot of good ideas that we at the local level can't fund. The federal government needs to know that too."

* The way mandates, in that they are separated from the. need to find the necessary revenue to fund them, tend to display little recognition for either the real cost of a program or the need for efficiency in the program.

Mayor Lashutka told delegates that one of the prime causes for his city's widely-recognized study of mandated environmental costs was the city finding that what USEPA said, in the federal register, would be a $75,000 stormwater program for his city actually cost $1.5 million.

Mayor Gerry Biggs Montgomery of Paducah, Ky. told delegates, "I want clean water in my city. I want clean air. My family lives there, but the Safe Drinking Water Act wants us to measure for 83 substances and then an additional 25 each new year, regardless of occurrence. That's the kind of foolishness we want to do away with."

Even Gerald Horack, Mayor Pro Tem of Ft. Collins, Cole, who was critical of the blanket cry of "no unfunded mandates," agreed in his participation as a panelist that some federal mandates, specifically in the environmental area, reach too far because "common sense has been lost" in their design.

He also agreed that federal mandates too often ignore "outcomes" and "get too much into the `hews'" of accomplishing certain goals. However, he termed much of the campaign to end unfunded federal mandates as "sloganeering" and "nonsense."

"Sometimes it is only through action by the federal government that some things happen on a large scale," Horack said. He pointed to civil rights law and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as two examples of changes that would not have occurred without federal action, with or without federal money to fund the consequences of those efforts.

"No one thought twenty years ago that we would face what we face today," he said. Lashutka contended that the growth in entitlement at the federal level and other factors which have added to the deficit and reduced cash for programs at the federal level have turned the federal government to mandates.

The problem, for Lashutka, is that turning was again one of priorities. He pointed to the ADA as an act that increased the cost for creating new police classes at the same time crime is becoming a bigger and bigger problem for cash-strapped cities.

For many delegates attending this series of workshops much of what they were looking for was not only a chance to vent some of their frustrations about mandates, but for new ways to fight off what they believe is a trend which is stifling their ability to manage their own communities. For many, winning that fight meant looking for ways to go beyond the NLC-sponsored effort for a National Unfunded Mandates Day to raising awareness of this important issue at all levels throughout the rest of the year.

For many mayors, such as Mayor Montgomery of Paducah and Mayor Ashe of Knoxville, public awareness of the problem can be enhanced by breaking out the percentage of annual property tax bills that can be attributed to unfunded mandates and presenting that bill to taxpayers in a way that shows that breakout.

However, as Mike Sittig of the Florida League pointed out, especially in dealing with those who create mandates "education is not enough. They understand what you're saying. They just don't support you."

Those kinds of situations across the country have led, at the state level, to new Constitutional amendments, as in the Florida case, to requirements for reimbursement of any mandates passed by the legislature to fiscal note expansions which make clear to legislators and the press how much certain legislative mandates will cost local government.

In California, according to panelist Sheri Eriewine, director of communications for the League of California Cities, efforts to make the case on unfunded mandates at the state level led to 2000 delegates to the League's annual conference picketing the State House. That effort, in conjunction with editorial board visits and broad discussions of the mandates problems in California city council meetings, was designed to generate news coverage to educate the public.

That flashpoint for the Florida League came on the last day of session in 1988 when the League was turned down in its efforts to prohibit unfunded state mandates by the legislature on the same day that the legislature passed a bill to increase pension benefits for uniformed local personnel by 50 percent.

That slap at local government infuriated local government and eventually led to placing the Florida constitutional amendment on the ballot in November of 1990, at which time the issue passed, according to Sittig.

Even after passage, the League had to fight to keep the amendment meaningful and legislative efforts designed to water the amendment down through enabling legislation were only stopped by a gubernatorial veto, sittig sad.

Mike Monteith, an assistant city manager from Hampton, Va., who served as a member of the intergovernmental relations team for the Clinton/Gore National Performance Review (NPR), urged participants to both read and take some hope from that "reinventing government" document. Not only is that document about reforming the federal government, he sad, but it is about reforming the relationships that the federal government has with other levels of government.

"If you're interested in unfunded mandates this is a very important document," Monteith sad. Much of that importance rests in the NPR's emphasis on creating a federal government that emphasizes a focus on those who deal with the federal government as "customers" and in changing the government's focus away from rules and regulations and toward outputs and results.

Lashutka, in his concluding remarks, characterized discussions such as last week's set of seminars, National Unfunded Mandates Day and the many other things that are occurring in many states as "the creation of a brushfire that is sweeping across the nation" on the issue of unfunded mandates.

That surge of grass-roots support ensures that the issues surrounding unfunded mandates will not go away until there is a new sense of responsible cooperation among all levels of government, he sad. Without that new relationship, the public's trust of government will continue to go downhill and create "a potential revolt against a government that doesn't work."

"Right now, we have a pyramid in which all wisdom comes from the federal government and we, in local government, are given little credit from the feds for our local common sense," Lashutka sad.
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Title Annotation:Cities in Action: Working Together; Track Workshops Fostered Sharing, Shaped New Idea, Broadened Outlook on Our Cities' Future
Author:Mahoney, John K.
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Dec 13, 1993
Words:1706
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