WASHINGTON -- Economic development and infrastructure are the top issues for the nation’s mayors at a time when Congress is restoring some money to federal grant programs than President Trump proposed to cut.

The 2018 State of the Cities report released Wednesday by the National League of Cities found that economic development continued to be the most mentioned issue by mayors in their annual state of the city addresses for the fifth consecutive year.

Fifty-eight percent of the 160 speeches surveyed by NLC cited economic development with downtown development, arts and culture, and neighborhood revitalization among the most cited subtopics.

Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence, Mass., left, spoke on the State of Cities 2018 report. He was joined by Mayor Jim Strickland of Memphis, Tenn., center.
Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence, Mass., left, spoke on the State of Cities 2018 report. He was joined by Mayor Jim Strickland of Memphis, Tenn., center. Brian Tumulty, The Bond Buyer

Infrastructure came in a close second, receiving mention in 56% of the speeches that most often framed the issue in terms of roads, streets and signs followed by drinking water and sewers or public transit.

Infrastructure ranked third in the 2017 survey and was fourth in 2016, but rose higher this year as more national attention has been given to the issue.

Two mayors who attended an NLC event Wednesday to discuss the release of the survey said recent action by Congress is welcome but isn’t enough.

“I think people were excited when the numbers went up but those numbers have been behind for a long, long time,” said Mayor Daniel Rivera of Lawrence, Mass.

For instance, the 2018 federal budget increased funding for Community Development Block Grants by $300 million to $3.3 billion but that’s below the $4.45 billion the program received in 2010.

NLC and other local government groups are lobbying for an increase to $3.5 billion in fiscal 2019, but the House Appropriations Committee has approved no change for fiscal 2109. The Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to be more receptive to the request for an increase.

Rivera said his city already uses CDBG money for food pantries, after-school programs and English as a second language programs and the extra money won’t be enough to address the opioid crisis.

The Trump administration released its long-delayed framework for infrastructure investment in February. It received a chilly reception from Congress and many infrastructure industry groups because it doesn’t contain proposals to pay for it or offer a plan for the establishing long-term solvency for the Highway Trust Fund.

Trump's $1 trillion, 10-year plan for infrastructure would use a relatively small amount of federal funding to leverage state, local and private funding and would be paid for with reductions to existing programs, administration officials said. But those programs are popular with members of Congress.

Congress instead has incorporated a two-step, $20 billion annual increase in infrastructure spending as part of a two-year omnibus spending agreement it passed in March.

The first $10 billion is already allocated in the fiscal 2018 budget, which ends on Sept. 30. The second $10 billion is scheduled to be part of the 2019 budget for the fiscal year that begins after that.

The omnibus spending bill also increased non-defense discretionary spending $63 billion for 2018. That meant more federal money for a wide range of programs important to cities, counties and other municipal governments.

For instance, 2018 Highway Trust Fund spending was increased by $1 billion to $45 billion, discretionary highway funding increased another $2.5 billion and the Federal Transit Administration received a $1 billion increase to $13.5 billion.

Preliminary work on the budget for fiscal 2019 by the House Appropriations Committee shows increases in some areas, but reductions elsewhere. But the Senate could eliminate the cuts.

“We are pleased to see the bipartisan budget deal happen,” said Michael Wallace, NLC’s program director for housing and development. “Cities tend to do well when there are bipartisan breakthroughs. At the local level you can see bipartisanship in city budgets everywhere.”

Mayor Jim Strickland of Memphis, Tenn., who also participated in the NLC event, said he has no guess as to how much of the $1 billion increase in the Highway Trust Fund might become available to his city.

“Memphis is probably no different from any city in America where infrastructure needs more funding,” Strickland said. “We are putting in as much as we can and it’s still not enough."

Strickland knows how he would put an increase in federal highway funding to use. "Lamar Avenue is a major thoroughfare for trucking and it’s a job driver in Memphis," he said. "If we could expand that, it would drive economic growth in the whole area.”

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