City's new era: Carrying more of the social service burden

There's a plus: More say in the decisions.
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The Urban Rest Stop serving the homeless operates out of an apartment building rebuilt with substantial city funding.

There's a plus: More say in the decisions.

When the Seattle City Council passed its 2014 budget late last year, there was at least one dramatic change worth noting. For the first time, Seattle is shouldering a larger share  — more than 50 percent — of the cost to provide public social services locally.

The difference is that the city’s traditional partners, the state and the federal government, are stepping back. The federal government and the state are no longer the revenue generators they once were, even though both have more ability to raise revenues than the city.

In fact, Seattle, like other cities in this state, is wholly dependent on the state for permission to raise money through taxes levied on its citizenry and businesses. In Washington, there is no municipal taxing authority without legislative approval.

Yet the state has not been willing to exercise its authority and raise taxes, leaving it with fewer resources to provide help to cities and towns. And in a parallel pattern, the federal government, too, is giving up dominance, opting for “sequester” and insisting on “reining in spending.”

But money, in this case at least, is muscle. If a city isn’t quite as dependent on the state, it is freer to make its own policy decisions. It’s up to the cities to make choices: to decide who qualifies for low-income housing and job assistance, to decide about paid sick pay and adjustment to the minimum wage. The city is left to help the under-funded schools through a Family and Education Levy and to look into providing universal preschool education.

This new-found strength is a pattern that is developing across this state and others: the rise of the cities as power centers. As states step back from their traditional roles, cities are increasing becoming the more dominant partner.

Cities more and more often are being asked by nonprofit social service agencies for the help that they once received from state and national sources.

The resulting imbalance is a form of civic disinvestment. It’s also a change in the basic power structure.

More mayors are acquiring national attention: mayors like Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel and New York’s Bill de Blasio. Mayors are increasingly vocal toward both state and federal governments. In 2011, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has 1,294 members, issued a rebuke to the U. S. government calling for less spending on roads in Iraq and Afghanistan and more investment in municipal infrastructure.

Faced with the need to maintain law and order and deliver services, cities are developing creative approaches, such as public-private partnerships and innovative financing schemes. From climate change to economic growth, cities and city leaders are demonstrating their growing assertiveness. 

In Washington, as an example, five Western Washington cities have joined together to develop a single internet “portal,” a one-stop internet location for business licensing and taxing. The portal is seen as a way to simplify reporting by businesses. It’s also an alternative to an expensive (to the cities) business-backed proposal that would have the state collect cities’ business and occupation taxes.

The joint portal is a creative example of city-to-city coordination. Innovative networks could become the norm: inter-city task forces, city-to-city development coordination, climate action and disaster relief and IT hubs. There are direct benefits to be had in cities pooling investment, technology, talent and reputation.

Cities are where the people are; where the economic engines are located. Cities are the common dominator and the essential pillar of our civilization. Small wonder that the mayors of these cities are on the rise — filling the power vacuum left by increasingly negligent and dithering state and national governments.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jean Godden

Jean Godden

Jean Godden served 12 years on Seattle City Council.