At Journalists Forum, in search of fiscal health
All told, it will take about $1.5 billion to deal with the lead poisoning catastrophe in Flint, Michigan, about 3,000 times what it would have cost to employ safeguards that could have prevented the crisis in the first place, Congressman Dan Kildee said last month at the Lincoln Institute's 2016 Journalists Forum on municipal fiscal health in Washington, D.C.
Speaking to about 50 leading reporters and editors, Kildee described Flint, his hometown, as an extreme case of a downward spiral that could happen in many U.S. cities: economic decline, loss of population, neglect of infrastructure, and drastic cost-cutting measures.
"There are a lot of Flint, Michigans in this country - more than I think most of us want to admit," he said.
Kildee shared the stage with Mayor Mick Cornett of Oklahoma City to kick of the Journalists Forum, a wide-ranging conversation about the structural issues that shape the financial health of cities. Partners included the Pew Charitable Trusts, Omidyar Network, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and the Ford Foundation.
It's easy to forget that many cities that are thriving today, like New York City and Washington, D.C., once teetered on the brink of insolvency. Richard Ravitch of the Volcker Alliance suggested that what makes things more severe today are pensions and other post-employment benefits. Washington's unique governance structure facilitated a swift response, said John Hill, who managed that city's fiscal crisis in the 1990s, and is currently Detroit's chief financial officer. Kevyn Orr, former emergency manager for Detroit, said it was critical to balance financial and humanitarian interests, especially in the depths of a fiscal crisis.
Looking at the revenue portfolio of cities, Lincoln Institute fellow Lourdes Germán described the current state of capital markets, innovations such as value capture, and the integration of financial and spatial planning. New York City Planning Director Carl Weisbrod shared examples of value capture from the Vanderbilt Avenue corridor and Hudson Yards, where the city is partly funding public investment with the expected increase in land values. Jerold Kayden of Harvard's Graduate School of Design provided the historical context in which planning and infrastructure investment has occurred in the United States.
Transparency is crucial for cities to access the $3.7 trillion municipal debt markets, said regulators Lynnette Kelly of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, LeeAnn Gaunt of the SEC's Municipal Securities and Public Pensions Unit and Christina Ho, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Accounting Policy and Financial Transparency at the Treasury Department. The MSRB's Electronic Municipal Market Access (EMMA) website is a resource for investors, journalists and the public to learn more about municipal borrowers and bonds. Germán introduced the Municipal Fiscal Health Dashboard, a forthcoming Lincoln Institute database that will allow for comparisons of 150 U.S. cities. Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First noted that more information will be available through new Governmental Accounting Standards Board requirements to report the true costs in lost revenue of tax breaks for business location.
Looking at fiscal stress from the state perspective, Kil Huh, Pew's senior director for State and Local Fiscal Health, said an important function of monitoring was to detect early warning signs of stress, in cities from Stockton, California to Central Falls, Rhode Island. Craig Kinns, assistant operations director for the New York State Comptroller's Office, reviewed the state's unique Fiscal Stress Monitoring System covering more than 4,000 local governments and school districts, which shows that nearly a quarter of New York's cities are fiscally stressed. In terms of state budgets themselves, 41 states have balanced-budget laws, but the public packaging of expenditures, revenues, and debt can be opaque, said Bill Glasgall, director of state and local programs for the Volcker Alliance and an advisor to the Ravitch Fiscal Reporting Program at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He shared results from the project Beyond the Basics, a survey of state budget practices.
The federal role in the fiscal health of cities has diminished over the years, but remains critical in many ways, whether unfunded mandates or the problem of unspent block grant funds. The Obama administration has been attentive in helping Detroit and more than a dozen other cities through the Strong Cities Strong Communities Initiative, said Don Graves, Deputy Assistant to the President and Counselor to Vice President Joe Biden.
Fiscal stress knows no boundaries, as the international session led by Lincoln Institute president George W. "Mac" McCarthy made clear. Hector Negroni from Fundamental Advisors LP presented on Puerto Rico's looming debt crisis, calling for a resolution that adheres to the rules under which debt was sold, and preserves the seniority of creditors. The rapidly growing cities of China have racked up staggering amounts of debt, and must find a more sustainable path that may include exploring the use of the property tax, said Zhi Liu, director of the Lincoln Institute's program in China.
As a prominent feature of the Journalists Forum, now in its 10th year, writers and editors shared their insights and observations in the practice of the craft - and the particular challenges of communicating complex fiscal issues for a broad audience. James Surowiecki, author of the Financial Page column at The New Yorker, kicked off the event at the Reagan Trade Center, noting the many impediments to local fiscal health, from an obsession with the short-term that restricts investment in infrastructure, to the culture of American individualism that shapes attitudes about cities and planning. Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR's On Point, provided a behind-the-scenes look at managing callers and fostering live discussion.
Liz Farmer of Governing shared Finance 101, the magazine's ongoing series covering fiscal stress across the nation. Former Wall Street Journal reporter Constance Mitchell Ford, now teaching fiscal journalism at the University of Maryland, noted the wealth of information that is available through credit rating agencies.
In a session devoted to analyzing and packaging complex data, Sarah Cohen from the data team at The New York Times shared efforts to help readers understand statistical analysis, such as the interactive Olympics Musical infographic, and Laz Gamio and Ted Mellnik from The Washington Post walked through the creation of a map of where millennials are moving in Washington. Data visualization developer Ben Chartoff and senior research associate Jon Schwabish of the Urban Institute used the visual metaphor of a pyramid to show the inverse relationship between the depth of research and the size of the audience for various modes of communication, ranging from technical papers to social media posts. Finally, Tom Burgis from The Financial Times showed how data collection and analysis must frequently be accompanied by old-fashioned on-the-ground reporting, as he found in the project The Great Land Rush.
Challenging economic pressures in the media industry make it even more difficult to produce in-depth stories on fiscal issues, so the Forum concluded with a session on foundation-supported journalism, led by Steve Sapienza from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The panel included presentations by Matthew Niederhauser on the project The Megacity Initiative, Claire Provost of The Guardian on the in-depth reporting opportunities provided by her fellowship with the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London, Chris Arsenault at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Stateline editor Scott Greenberger on covering issues like the opioid crisis, and veteran syndicated columnist Neal Peirce, founder of Citiscope.
The Forum was enhanced by a lively conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #fiscalhealth, and coverage by Reuters, ABC, The American Prospect, Africa Check, CityMetric, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
New Lincoln Institute board members
Former Cleveland Mayor Jane L. Campbell and veteran Wall Street Journal journalist Constance Mitchell Ford have joined the Board of Directors of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.
"We welcome Jane Campbell and applaud her distinguished record of public service at the local, state, and federal level, which will be an asset to the Lincoln Institute as we work to promote fiscally healthy communities" said Kathryn J. Lincoln, chair and chief investment officer for the Lincoln Institute. "Similarly, as we communicate the importance of land policy to a wide audience, we are grateful for Constance Mitchell Ford's excellence in financial journalism and her ability to disentangle complex financial subjects."
Having served as mayor of Cleveland from 2002-06, the first woman to hold that office, Campbell is the director of the newly established Washington Office of the National Development Council (NDC). In this role, she brings the expertise of NDC's forty years of experience bringing capital to underserved communities - both urban and rural - into the federal public policy debate.
Previously, as staff director under Senator Maria Cantwell and Senator Mary Landrieu, she served the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, leading the committee's work on access to capital and women's entrepreneurship, federal contracting opportunities, business counseling, and engagement in international trade. From 2009-13, Campbell served as chief of staff for Landrieu, leading efforts in coastal restoration and rebuilding after both Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill.
Campbell's public service career has also included five years as county commissioner for Ohio's largest county and six terms in the Ohio House of Representatives. Her public service focused on economic development, fiscal stability, child welfare, and health and human services policy. After successfully helping to implement welfare reform, Campbell was honored as Governing Magazine's Public Official of the Year in 2000. She has also served as president of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
After nearly three decades as an editor and reporter at The Wall Street Journal, Constance Mitchell Ford recently joined the faculty of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she will teach business and economics reporting.
During her time at the Journal, Mitchell Ford led coverage of economics, banking, investing and real estate, most recently as the global real estate and property bureau chief. Among her many honors, she received a Scripps Howard Foundation award for her stories about the subprime mortgage crisis. She also served on the ERISA committee for Dow Jones & Co., the parent company of The Wall Street Journal. The committee made investment decisions for Dow Jones employee 401K and other retirement plans.
Mitchell Ford has been invited to speak about the economy and real estate at numerous national and international events, including the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland; The Global Interdependence Center Conference in Dublin, Ireland; The International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut; and the Global Summit of Women in Seoul, Korea, among others. She received a B.S. degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland and a M.A. in Economics from the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
The other members of the Lincoln Institute board include former Interior secretary and Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt; Roy Bahl, Regents Professor of Economics, Emeritus, at Georgia State University; Carolina Barco, former ambassador of Colombia to the United States; Mimi Brown, former commissioner of Rating and Valuation for the Government of Hong Kong; Raphael Bostic, director of the Bedrosian Center on Governance and the Public Enterprise at the University of Southern California; Anthony Coyne, president of Mansour, Gavin, LPA in Cleveland; former US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, co-chair of Building America's Future; George W. McCarthy, president and CEO of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy; Bruce Lincoln, president of Innervizion Surf Company in Chandler, Arizona; David C. Lincoln, president of VIKA Corp. and chairman of the Lincoln Laser Company; John G. Lincoln III, former senior engineer at CH2M-Hill in Boise, Idaho; Johannes F. Linn, a resident senior scholar at the Emerging Markets Forum in Washington, D.C.; Thomas Nechyba, professor of economics and public policy studies at Duke University; and Jill Schurtz, Executive Director, St. Paul Teachers' Retirement Fund Association, in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Odds & Ends
In-law apartments as source of affordable housing ... The costs of tax breaks in Kansas City ... Experts embrace value capture in Los Angeles, drawing on a talk by Lincoln Institute senior fellow Martim Smolka ... Community land trusts get organized in Boston ... Reflection on the legacy of Jane Jacobs ... Innovation districts as a stimulus for struggling cities ... Lincoln Institute fellow Lourdes Germán is recognized for advancing civic innovation ... UN-Habitat drafts a New Urban Agenda for the next 20 years ... Infrastructure Week report shows barriers to local revenue generation ... This month's highlighted working paper: Further Empirical Evidence on Property Taxation and the Occurrence of Urban Sprawl, by Robert W. Wassmer.
— ANTHONY FLINT & WILL JASON, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy