Monday, April 27, 2009

"It's too tough" to be a mayor, says Biden

Vice President Joe Biden was in town today at the UIC's fifth annual Richard J. Daley Urban Forum, to talk about how the economic stimulus package will benefit cities. "All of you have the most difficult job in government," he told the couple dozen or so mayors and municipal leaders from five continents, who had just finished a global town hall describing the challenges they are facing and solutions they are finding amid the world economic crisis.

Those mayors had stories to tell. Hanna Birna Kristjansdottir, mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland, saw local unemployment jump from one to nine percent in the first six months of her country's economic crisis. City revenues were projected to fall 20 percent, while costs were rising due to inflation and the devaluation of Iceland's currency. The mayor led the way in cost-cutting, taking a 20 percent pay cut, while city council members tightened their belts to the tune of 10 percent. City employees were invited to submit cost-cutting ideas, generating 1500 possibilities. Three hundred of their ideas made their way into the current city budget, helping balance the budget without raising taxes.

Meanwhile, in Lahore, Pakistan, the city's first elected mayor, Mian Amer Mahmood, described his home town's initial forays into privatization. When Lahore first tried to privatize waste management, they got no takers. Instead, the city partially privatized by giving its own workers the tools but asking them to share the costs--for example, the city provided garbage trucks but didn't fill the gas tanks, leaving that to the workforce. Lahore's waste management costs have been reduced 20 percent. Corporate sponsorship of public schools is also gaining ground in Lahore. More than a quarter of the city's 1400 schools have been adopted by businesses or wealthy individuals, and sponsors even chip in toward teacher salaries. The standard of education is improving in these schools, the mayor said, and the city's cost savings are being reinvested in infrastructure and teacher training.

Mayor Judith Pinedo Florez of Cartagena, Colombia could teach Chicago Public Schools a thing or two about food service contracting. In the past, foodservice contracts only went to large firms, but now the city is able to work with smaller, mom-and-pop vendors and with budding entrepreneurs fresh out of school, creating more competition on price and service. Meanwhile, the Organic School Project is struggling to get a toehold in CPS due to the same kinds of contracting rules that held Cartagena back in the past, I suspect. Like Chicago, Cartagena is keeping its school doors open longer hours to provide cultural and other enrichment activities for kids.

Education and health were much on Biden's mind as well. "How educated your city is explains how wealthy your city is by 60 percent," he told the crowd, interpreting recent research from CEOs for Cities. If Chicago were able to raise the number of people earning college degrees by just one percent, that would translate into $7.2 billion more dollars in the local economy. "A lot of those jobs are in health and health care," Biden noted. "Strong cities will be hubs of learning and hubs of healing."

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