Nicole Flatow is the editor of CityLab. She was previously U.S. enterprise editor at The Guardian.
In their annual state of the city addresses, mayors are calling out the elephant in the room.
Two mayors deliver their annual state of the city addresses. They both acknowledge imperfect crime records and tout their hiring of police officers. They both prioritize revitalizing their streets. And they both talk about increasing the density of core neighborhoods. Put them in a room together, and they agree about most things.
But there’s one topic they frame very differently: Their relationship with their colleagues in state and federal government.
“We are living in interesting times,” said Lawrence, Massachusetts, Mayor Dan Rivera in his city address. He contextualized the challenges for the city by pointing to the Trump administration’s “struggles to keep its doors open” and “men and women taking to the streets to protest” in cities across the country.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s address struck a very different political tone. “We don’t get involved in the partisan politics of the day,” he said. “Our team shuts up, rolls up its sleeves, and takes action.”
The relationship between cities and other governments is one of the top issues that U.S. mayors increasingly talked about in setting their priorities this year, according to an analysis of 160 State of the City addresses by the National League of Cities (NLC). Other popular topics that emerged more than in previous years include infrastructure and public parks.
“Cities big and small are contending with a tall order: Do more with less, help more people, expand more programs, but do it with less money, and less support from the federal government,” said Brooks Rainwater, the executive director of NLC’s Center for City Solutions. “In some ways, it’s the same old story. But when we have crises like the opioid epidemic and climate change on our plates, it starts to feel more dire, and in some ways more absurd.”
Talking about the report during a panel discussion, Rivera said he chose to lead his speech by addressing these political issues because he wanted his constituents to understand that “even though we balanced our books and we’re addressing issues that for a long time people wanted us to address, the circumstances surrounding that have changed.”
“Federal grants to police officers [are] no more,” Rivera said. “A full response to what the national conversation is naming as a crisis around the opioid epidemic, no response. A shared financing of public education and transportation, that’s not coming either.”
Political context aside, most of the top priorities for mayors haven’t changed, according to NLC’s analysis of the 160 speeches that were available online. The most commonly discussed priority for mayors remains economic development, with a recent focus on downtown revitalization. Streets and signs ranked highly across geographic regions, and in all but the biggest cities. Public safety remains a top concern, particularly this year, talking about the police.
Even mayors like Rivera know that these are the issues his constituents will ask him about first.
“It doesn’t matter what people are talking about at the national and at the state level,” he said. “When you go grocery shopping, people are talking about their park, their sidewalk, their street. And you could be at this thing were you’re celebrating something very big, and you just did this great thing, and inevitably somebody will walk up to you and say, ‘hey you know my trash didn’t get picked up today.’ And so you can’t run from that.”
The biggest cities, those with more than 300,000 people, were most likely to talk about “intergovernmental relations,” the third-ranked discrete topic after police and public transit. This concern manifested itself in pledges for new priorities like climate change that fill gaps in national regulation: “We understand clearly we have to protect our own people from global warming when our national government fails to do so,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in this year’s speech.
It also manifested itself in escalating battles with state governments, which are increasingly blocking cities from acting on issues like property tax and rent control, while expecting significant contributions from cities for state pension funds.
“It is hard to believe that the governor is even talking about trying to limit city, county, and school district tax increases to 2.5 percent per year (without a vote), when the state property tax has increased by 288 percent in just five years,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler in his address.
“This year I warn of another concern and ask for your assistance,” said Mayor Steve Leary of Winter Park, Florida. “Our leaders in Tallahassee have lost their way. Members of the Florida House and Senate have chosen leadership, party, lobbyists, and their own selfish interests over the constituents that elected them. Their overt attempts to preempt home rule and create one-size-fits-all legislation is beyond dangerous, it is borderline unconstitutional.”
Big cities were also most likely to elevate homelessness and affordable housing as top issues. For smaller cities, these issues did not crack the top 10.
Opioids were only coded in 11 percent of speeches, and substance abuse in 7 percent. Infrastructure, by contrast, was talked about in 56 percent of speeches.
But the issue of opioids was one of several identified as emerging based on its appearance in a subset of speeches. Others were climate change and broadband internet access.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, touted his initiative to expand public WiFi, saying: “To thrive tomorrow, we must also pay attention to a new category of infrastructure. Residents need to know they can rely on good digital infrastructure.”
A small and relatively unchanged proportion of mayors, 14 percent, talked about government data and technology, despite an increasing public focus on the notion of “smart cities.” Other topics at the intersection of technology and infrastructure like dockless bikes were increasingly mentioned this year, including by Buttigieg, in what he called a merging of “digital and transportation infrastucture.”
Many local priorities are, of course, harder to quantify. Mayor Strickland of Memphis cited population loss as the number one issue for his city, a contrast from the narrative in many of the largest U.S. cities where new residents are associated with rising costs and displacement.
To address that issue, Strickland said, he’s following a trend common to most cities: building up density in core areas, instead of “building out.”
But he’s also looking to several of the other primary issues on NLC’s list, particularly crime and schools, which he says are driving people out of the city. Strickland ran for office on a campaign to improve public safety, and has touted advances in 911 response times and police hiring in his address. But police hiring alone may not solve everything, as Memphis is a majority-black city with a history of racially charged policing. Just prior to Strickland’s election, the police department was reviewed by the Department of Justice over the shooting of a black teen by police, and the ACLU is suing Memphis over alleged police surveillance.
Asked how he confronts racial tensions in approaching the issue of “public safety,” Strickland noted that the police department is diverse—majority African-American—and that his public safety strategy includes not just policing but other intersectional issues like education and community planning.
“Memphians all over the city, black and white, Democrat and Republican, no matter where you live, are really sick of crime,” he told me. “There are certain neighborhoods that hear a gunshot every single night.”
Rivera’s city of Lawrence also considers crime among its most significant and intractable problems. His city had the worst homicide rate in 15 years last year, he said. He, too, has been focused on police hiring, as well as community policing.
But unlike Strickland, he cited gun trafficking and police staffing as issues that should be addressed at the national level. Anita Yadavalli, program director of city fiscal policy at NLC, said several mayors brought up guns in their annual addresses this year, particularly school shootings. The study only tracked speeches between January and April, but she predicted that if she were to keep tracking addresses that occur through the summer, guns would continue to emerge as an issue for mayors. “That’s something that especially I find that mayors are calling on federal action. You know it’s basically in the vein of, ‘Hey we’re struggling in these cities, what can you do about it?’” She added that some cities are also touting moves to pass legislation like banning bump stocks.
“I think that mayors are just trying to take action into their own hands through on-the-ground programs and trying to implement gun violence policies wherever they can,” she said.