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Stateside Chat: Small Cities, Big Infrastructure Challenges

How Local Communities Can Rebuild Their Infrastructure

Add to Calendar 6/22/21 2:00 pm 6/22/21 3:00 pm America/New York Stateside Chat: Small Cities, Big Infrastructure Challenges Stateside Chat and National League of Cities logos Join the conversation on Twitter using #StatesideChat and #RebuildWithUs. Across the country, small cities are struggling to find adequate funding to replace and rebuild their critical infrastructure. The president has proposed the American Jobs Plan to rebuild the United States’ infrastructure and create millions of jobs. As the U.S. economy continues to recover from this historic pandemic, now is the time to spur an American recovery, create well-paying jobs, and tackle the infrastructure backlog in towns across the United States. Local leaders are ready to rebuild and deliver for their communities, but they need to be backed by a significant investment partnership such as the American Jobs Plan so that they can create resilient and sustainable infrastructure in every corner of the country. Please join the Center for American Progress and the National League of Cities for a conversation with leaders of small cities who are fighting to improve their communities’ infrastructure and are pushing for critical investments in transportation, water, broadband, and the workforce. We would love to hear your questions. Please submit any questions for our distinguished panel via email at CAPeventquestions@americanprogress.org or on Twitter using #StatesideChat and #RebuildWithUs. Live captioning will be available on Zoom and on the YouTube livestream.

Stateside Chat and National League of Cities logos

Join the conversation on Twitter using #StatesideChat and #RebuildWithUs.

Across the country, small cities are struggling to find adequate funding to replace and rebuild their critical infrastructure. The president has proposed the American Jobs Plan to rebuild the United States’ infrastructure and create millions of jobs. As the U.S. economy continues to recover from this historic pandemic, now is the time to spur an American recovery, create well-paying jobs, and tackle the infrastructure backlog in towns across the United States. Local leaders are ready to rebuild and deliver for their communities, but they need to be backed by a significant investment partnership such as the American Jobs Plan so that they can create resilient and sustainable infrastructure in every corner of the country.

Please join the Center for American Progress and the National League of Cities for a conversation with leaders of small cities who are fighting to improve their communities’ infrastructure and are pushing for critical investments in transportation, water, broadband, and the workforce.

We would love to hear your questions. Please submit any questions for our distinguished panel via email at CAPeventquestions@americanprogress.org or on Twitter using #StatesideChat and #RebuildWithUs. Live captioning will be available on Zoom and on the YouTube livestream.

Introductory remarks:
Kathy Maness, Councilmember, Lexington, South Carolina; President, National League of Cities

Distinguished panelists:
Chrelle Booker, Mayor Pro Tempore, Tryon, North Carolina
Melanie Piana, Mayor, Ferndale, Michigan
Laura Weinberg, Mayor, Golden, Colorado
Vince Williams, Mayor, Union City, Georgia; First Vice President, National League of Cities

Moderator:
John Podesta, Founder and Chair of the Board of Directors, Center for American Progress

Transcript

John Podesta:

Good afternoon, everyone. I’m John Podesta, and on behalf of the Center for American Progress, I want to welcome you to today’s event. And before we get started, let me note that live captioning is available by clicking on the closed caption button on the bottom of your screen. Today’s event is part of CAP’s Stateside Chat series. Over the course of the year, we’re hosting conversations with state and local officials, as well as community advocates who are fighting for progress all across the country. And you can let us know who you’d like to hear from and what policies matter to you by using the hashtag #StatesideChat on Twitter. Now, I’m really pleased and honored to welcome the president of the National League of Cities, Kathy Maness. She has been an all-star advocate for city and local leadership around the country, especially at a time when communities have been navigating how to restart their economies and recover stronger in the wake of the pandemic—as President Biden might put it, how to build back better.

I’ll introduce her in just a moment, and then we’ll bring out a great panel of city leaders. But first, let me say a few words about the challenges facing our mayors and local leaders across the country. Cities have really been hard hit in the past year. In 2020, 90 percent of municipalities experienced a decrease in revenue. At least 1 in 3 cities had to make cuts to their workforces along with hiring freezes, furloughs, and reduced hours. This has made the recovery all that more difficult. The CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan provided substantial help, but cities are still suffering. A recent report by the National League of Cities outline the tough challenges ahead. Forty percent of urban officials have seen a rise in crime in the past year. Almost 2 in 3cities are witnessing an increase in homelessness. Two-thirds of the cities also reported an increase in the need for small business emergency assistance.

While communities are calling for better access to clean drinking water, to broadband, to carbon-free and healthy schools, to more parks and green spaces in their neighborhoods, NLC found that 91 percent of local officials said insufficient funding was the top factor impacting their decisions when it comes to local infrastructure projects. Now, President Biden’s American Jobs Plan goes a long way in vitalizing our infrastructure and helping cities and local governments deliver for their residents with over $100 billion for clean drinking water, $100 billion for a high-speed broadband, billions more for public transit, infrastructure, resilience, and transportation. I also want to note that the heart of the American Jobs Plan is a commitment to clean up our communities and provide new opportunities to those that have been disproportionately burdened by pollution and economic and racial inequality.

So, as we work toward passage of the American Jobs Plan, it’s essential to have strong partners at the local and city level, both to push the federal government to act and to work to implement the needed investments—and Kathy Maness has been doing just that. Kathy is a member of the town council in Lexington, South Carolina, and last November became the president of the National League of Cities. Since then, she has spearheaded the organization’s mission to strengthen local leadership, influence federal policy, and develop solutions amid an extraordinarily difficult year. Previously, she served in a number of roles for the League, addressing youth, education, and families and lifting up the leadership of women in municipal government. Kathy, it’s an honor to have you with us. Thank you for taking the time. And let me hand the mic over to you. Thank you.

Kathy Maness:

Thank you so much, John. As John said, I am Kathy Maness and councilwoman from the town of Lexington, South Carolina. So greetings everyone from South Carolina. And I’ll tell you, it is a great honor for me to serve as the president of the National League of Cities. Today, we’re here to talk about an issue that demands a lot of time from local leaders, and that’s infrastructure. I don’t know about y’all, but every time I go somewhere, “When are y’all going to do something about these roads? When are you going to do something about this traffic?” And the pandemic has put a spotlight on the necessity of basic infrastructure for public health and how cities can support and protect our residents, businesses, and keep our economy moving. For years and years, Congress has been talking about infrastructure, but it’s just been talking about. They’ve largely left local governments to fend for themselves, for their nation’s roads, bridges, water, and even sidewalks.

True to what local leaders do, we had kept them as well maintained as our resources would allow. In the town of Lexington, South Carolina—about 20,000 citizens—we have already put $8.6 million into our jammed-up main street that backs up every day at rush hour and now at all times of the day. We couldn’t get help from our state; we couldn’t get help from Congress. So there was nobody there to help us. So we had to do it ourselves, and we have planned expenditures over the next five years of over $20 million. But I’m going to tell you, the truth is we can’t do this alone. Infrastructure is a partnership. That’s what we saw in NLC’s new report, “Ready to Rebuild,” which shows that every community—from the smallest to the largest—has a story to tell about the range of transportation, water, broadband projects, and workforce development.

It needs to be clear on what Congress can do to help us. NLC has declared June as “Small Cities Month.” It’s where we uplift the contributions of small cities, towns, and villages across the country and the residents who lived there. Most of the cities and towns in America are small cities. And more than 80 percent of NLC’s membership is made up of cities and municipalities serving populations of 50,000 or less. So today, we are so glad to be here with the Center for American Progress to focus on the needs of small communities like mine. These communities face the same infrastructure challenges as larger communities, but in many cases we have less resources and fewer resources to do anything. So you’ll hear from my colleagues from across the country who will share their experience from the ground level.

And I ask you to put yourself in their shoes. These folks are the heart of America, and they have a clear message to Congress: We need Washington to invest in our nation’s infrastructure and in the training that will put our residents to work and rebuild and maintain this infrastructure. America’s cities, towns, and villages want to get their critical infrastructure systems back on track and must rebuild our infrastructure and economy in ways that are more equitable, sustainable, and forward-thinking. NLC is pleased to partner with CAP for this important briefing, which comes at the critical time of ongoing infrastructure conversations in Washington. I look forward to today’s conversations. Thank you to the mayors who are here. I look forward to hear what y’all have to say about infrastructure. Thank you, John.

Podesta:

Thank you, President Maness. That was a terrific introduction. I hope and I trust that people on both sides of the aisle are listening to what you just said and what I think your colleagues are about to say about the needs of cities, and particularly small cities, and how we can navigate these trying times to help their communities and their residents. There’s a lot to consider beyond the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan. I think we can all agree that successful infrastructure, successful recovery, and revitalization relies on cities and local communities and their governments having the resources that they need to play their part. So thank you very much for teeing this up.

Up next, I’m joined by four mayors from across the country. From handling COVID and the economic fallout to now looking forward to a recovery and regrowth in their cities, each of them has had to navigate difficult circumstances and their own challenges in a trying year. Let me do some quick introductions, and then we’ll get right to questions. At the end, we’ll have some time for audience questions. Chrelle Booker is the mayor pro tem of Tryon, North Carolina, and is also a member of the National League of Cities’ Information Technology & Communications Federal Advocacy Committee. She previously worked in radio and TV broadcasting and spent over 10 years at the Dove Broadcasting and Channel 16 TV in Greenville, South Carolina.

Melanie Piana is the mayor of Ferndale, Michigan. She served as an elected official in Ferndale for more than 11 years—10 as a city councilmember and now one as mayor—and has taken vital steps on municipal paid parental leave policy, racial equity, and making Ferndale a carbon-neutral city. Laura Weinberg is the mayor of Golden, Colorado. She began her term in January 2020 and has pushed for, among other things, strong business growth, greater housing affordability, and safer, smarter transportation. She previously served as a city counselor, where she was first elected in 2013 and reelected in 2017. And finally, Vince Williams as the mayor of Union City, Georgia, and the vice president of the National League of Cities. In 2007, he was elected to the city council. In 2013, he became mayor. Since then, he’s taken a number of steps to address governmental transparency, safety, and particularly economic growth—and in doing so, reversed a multiyear financial deficit during his first term as mayor.

Mayors, let’s start off. When we think of infrastructure, I think people talk at a national level, and they kind of think of the interstate highway system, and they don’t get it down really to the nitty-gritty of what the priorities are at the local level. So let’s just start by going around the horn. And let me ask you each, what are your biggest needs? What are your biggest challenges when it comes to infrastructure in your communities? Mayor Piana, maybe we’ll start with you.

Mayor Melanie Piana:

Hi, thank you. It’s great to be here with all of you. Our biggest infrastructure priorities really are retrofitting major streets that we don’t own so that they better serve the people of our community improving safety. We also have a stormwater improvement focus so that we can address changes by the climate. We have more torrential rains happening, and we’re a land-locked city. We don’t have any rivers, creeks, lakes, or anything, but we have flooding going on. And then we have a leadline problem. So we’re an older city with predominantly leadlines, and our state of Michigan changed ownership from the homeowner replacing their curve to their house leadlines to the cities. And so the cities are responsible for paying for those infrastructure upgrades. Those are our three priorities.

Podesta:

Terrific. I would just note that one of the president’s priorities has been, across the country, to replace all those leadlines and provide the resources to communities like you to get that job done. President Pro Tem Booker, why don’t we go to you?

Mayor Pro Tempore Chrelle Booker:

Our top priority is the Lake Lanier dam. It was constructed in 1924; it’s 97 years old. The problem with the dam is that it’s in South Carolina, and we’re in North Carolina. And recently, the town of Tryon was mandated to perform an engineer and inspection on the lake dam. That was by state agencies out of South Carolina. And this cost our town $240,000. Now, the town of Tryon has owned the dam, the lake, and the property downstream from the dam since the 1980s. That water source serves as water for our town. The town of Tryon provides emergency services, fire, and medical for the Lake Lanier community. The improvement for the lake is estimated to cost between $4.5 million to $5.5 million.

Our other issue is our water plant. Our 200,000 gallon clear well, it was installed in 1926. So it’s 95 years old. It leaks, and it recently sprung a new leak. The problems are that the system is at risk of contamination, and the water level has to be monitored because if you overfill it, then that causes another problem—you have water that is wasted out, and that’s costly, and you can’t recoup spilled water. The improper fitting top is crumbling, it’s fragile, and repairing and replacing it calls for the clear well to be offline. All of Tryon’s water projects will cost around $12.5 million, with the dam itself being one-fourth of that amount, at $3.2 million. So, those are two great infrastructure problems that we are handling at the moment.

Podesta:

Mayor, can ask you a quick follow up? Are your governors collaborating on trying to calve a fix between the South Carolina and North Carolina jurisdictions?

Booker:

Well, by now you’ve noticed with the timeline that it’s been 41 years that Tryon has had this problem. And so every time that we contact South Carolina, it’s going to cost one of the ends money. Bottom line is we own the dam.

Podesta:

I hear you. Mayor Williams, maybe you could go next.

Mayor Vince Williams:

Well, thanks, John. Look, when you talk about infrastructure, I mean, there is a plethora of things that go into that. I mean, certainly you talk about workforce–I mean, infrastructure could mean workforce. But certainly some of the things that we’re focusing on here in Union City—being a city that is so closely connected to the city of Atlanta, a big city, it’s so ironic that on this panel today, I’m considered the big city because I’m right at 21,396 people, so I’m the big city—but anyway, the issue that we deal with and have been dealing with for a number of years, with one of the biggest infrastructure agents, is certainly water and providing a water resource to our community. Because we depend solely on the city of Atlanta, who provides us, and not for free, they provide us water.

So one of the things that we are working on is to become independent, to be able to be self-sufficient in supplying water resources to our community. Water, as we know, has been one of the most overlooked, and now it is one of the most highly examined, treasures of resources that communities definitely must have. But also with that infrastructure issue, you can look at, John, is also transit and transportation—and that means your roads. And when you look at the decaying roads—not just in Union City or Tryon or Ferndale, or Golden—it’s all over the nation. We’re hearing what’s happening with the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge. I mean, when you have breaches like that, that lets you know, and that particular bridge is about 50–60 years old.

Most other infrastructure in these United States is over the age of 50. So it is time for all of us to start rebuilding to make sure that we not only participate in safety for our communities but to be able to build on sustainable economic development in our communities. Infrastructure is economic development too. So we’ve got to make sure that we’re doing what’s right for our communities but also those communities that have issues with equity. And it’s been a long-standing problem for many, many years. Communities that are at a disadvantage when it comes to equity, they’re usually at the bottom.

One of the things I do want to point out: Small cities—and that’s all small cities—have been at a disadvantage for years when it comes to our federal partners. It is time for our federal leaders to stop bickering and battling one another over the issue of infrastructure. This administration has targeted itself to say that we will be the answer to infrastructure needs. It’s time to do it and stop fighting. It’s time to do it. But I’m going to depart from there. We can get on to happier things.

Podesta:

OK, Mayor Williams, I’m going to come back to you on the federal role.

Williams:

Yes, sir.

Podesta:

Mayor Weinberg, why don’t you back clean up? What are your big priorities now in your neck of the woods?

Mayor Laura Weinberg:

Sure, and thank you. Like Mayor Williams, we are part of a metro region. Golden is part of the metro Denver area. And over the years, we have seen increasing numbers of people and businesses moving to the area, and investment in the infrastructure has not kept up with that amount of change. So our regional and our local infrastructure is strained. Golden has several state highways through our city that are congested and need fixes. We are part of our regional transportation district. So we do have transit routes, some of which were cut during the pandemic. So we are seeing those double impacts of congested highways and roads and transit cuts leading to longer commute times. We also have seen, like many cities, that housing costs are soaring, which impacts the people who are here, impacts those who want to move here, and impacts our businesses who are looking to relocate to the area because they question where their employees will be able to live.

We’re also finding that our existing businesses who are here are challenged filling jobs that are open because qualified, skilled employees are not available for those jobs. And as we’ve all learned during the pandemic, residents who need to work from home or learn from home struggle to participate fully when they have inadequate or unavailable broadband internet options. So all of those are infrastructure challenges that we face in our city, like many other cities. Rebuilding for us means improving transportation. It means more quality, affordable housing. It means a skilled workforce for the jobs that we have and the jobs for the future, and it means high-speed internet to every home and every neighborhood in our city so that all of us can thrive together into the future.

Podesta:

Great. Mayor Weinberg, let me follow up with you on the need to … One of the challenges I think cities have, and we’ll maybe again go back over this with the other mayors, is most of the federal money comes with some strings attached, but it also comes with a match attached. So the local government’s sometimes pretty stressed—probably particularly right now, pretty stressed—have to come up with a match in order to basically be able to access the federal money, kind of a constant challenge. How do you manage that? How do you work around that, Mayor Weinberg?

Weinberg:

It is a constant challenge. We’re a city of just under 21,000 residents—although maybe that number is a little higher—but we are part of a connected region. So many of the projects that we need in our city are benefiting residents and businesses outside of our city limits. We do have several state highways. We also have a federal interstate. We have regional bus and rail service, and they’re all used for travelers, for whom Golden’s not their point of origin or their destination. But improving those modes of transportation through our city often fall as local projects. And with those local projects, accessing funding requires a local match for each project. And that can be in the many millions of dollars for each individual project.

One project that we did recently in the last 10 years, the amount required for that local match–and this was for an improvement on the state highway through our city–was between 5 to 10 percent of our total budget. So when you’re looking at our total budget and saying one singular project that benefits the region, as well as our city, is going to take up that many resources, it’s really a struggle for smaller cities to identify. So for us, each single project can take years of planning. It takes a lot of effort to line up partnerships. We try to partner with our state university that’s in Golden for projects that benefit them or county government, because we are the seat for our county government, and businesses and other organizations, we try to partner to help with this.

And oftentimes it does mean putting a financing request to our voters to help identify enough funding to complete a single project. So with many, many projects that are needed, it takes a lot of time and a lot of our resources to be able to come up with that local match that’s required to get the project completed.

Podesta:

I should confess that my daughter lives in Denver at Sloan’s Lake, but she likes to hike in Golden.

Weinberg:

Lots of people do.

Podesta:

So, you have to figure out a way to do maybe tax some of those voters in Denver, too. Mayor Piana, do you have the same problems in Michigan?

Weinberg:

Yes, I can totally relate to Mayor Weinberg’s stories. Ferndale is a small inner ring suburb. We’re 4 square miles and about 21,000 residents, and we border the city of Detroit at its northern end. And we are situated along a major transit line; Woodward Avenue was the first paved road in the United States in 1909. Woodward Avenue is 26 miles long, and we have 2 miles of those 26 miles. And our real focus really is about leveraging an opportunity. Our state agency owns Woodward Avenue, and it bisects and cuts our downtown in half. And the number one reason people live in or move to Ferndale is because of walkability, but the walkability of Woodward and the safety getting across from one side of our downtown to the other is the number-one complaint I get from residents, and they feel uncomfortable and unsafe getting across this eight-lane corridor. It’s 200 feet wide, and only 6 percent of that 200 feet is dedicated to the sidewalk.

So, everything else is dedicated to car travel. And I think when you look at equitable development and building toward community wealth and building places where people feel like they belong and have access to the community, really retrofitting this major corridor into something that knits our downtown together is something of a priority for us. And next year, [Michigan Department of Transportation] is repaving Woodward in our section. And we are partnering with adjacent city, the city of Pleasant Ridge, to find ways to improve the street in Camden while they resurface. So it’s up to cities like ours to find the funding to put in the safety improvements. The state will only pay for resurfacing and remilling.

So, we have been completing the Michigan Department of Transportation’s street diet checklist, and we pay for all of the expertise to complete the studies to show that we comply. And now we are in a nail-biting period. We applied for a $3.9 million transportation alternatives program grant, and our regional metropolitan planning organization will decide in mid-July whether or not we get it. And if we get the grant, we will have to match 30 percent of $1.2 million. And in comparison of how big that is for us, our major streets funds of Act 51 is 1.3 million, and 90 percent of the streets in Ferndale are taken care of by our residents through road bonds. So really we have very limited funds to really make the improvements that the community and our business community really desire. So that’s kind of where we’re at.

So cross your fingers that we get the grant, because if we don’t get the grant, we can’t make these improvements, and that we’ll repave next year, regardless. And we go back, what I call back into orbit, we go back into orbit waiting for another 10–15 years for them to resurface again for us to do this. So there is no program in which Ferndale can apply to receive funds to do this other than the Transportation Alternatives Program. So I feel like we’re in a donut hole of funding, where we just are not included as a priority community along a major transit line.

Podesta:

I’m really glad you told that story with such specificity, because I think that really can help shape the conversation on Capitol Hill about really what needs to be targeted and fixed in these programs. And hopefully Secretary Buttigieg is listening too. Mayor Williams, I know you inherited a city that was chronically in the red. You turned that around, worked hard at economic development, but when it comes to partnering with the federal government in terms of accessing funds and having to come up with these matches, what’s your experience been like?

Williams:

Well, John, is quite challenging to say the least. You know, I mean, when you think about the years of TIGER grants and all of these other huge infrastructure or transportation grants that were certainly introduced in cities, small cities couldn’t participate because we couldn’t compete with the ask when it comes to a city match. We couldn’t do it, because oftentimes those matches would gobble up our budgets, and that’s just the case it is. And you’ll speak about Secretary Buttigieg, I am so excited that he is our transportation secretary. Being a mayor from a small city, that gives him access and understanding to know what we deal with each and every day. And he has been a huge resource. Certainly he’s been a great friend to NLC, and a lot of us we have had great conversations with him.

He was just here in the metro Atlanta area a few weeks ago, and we had a conversation about some of the needs that we are looking at. And certainly I feel that when you have someone who understands your plight, it gives you a better footing on being able to get the support you need. Again, he is just one piece of the puzzle, and we’ve got to make sure that—and I hate to keep harping on this equity issue, because all of us are at a disadvantage being small cities—we have been put at a huge disadvantage, and the bulk of these United States is made up of small cities. It’s almost a have and a have not situation that we’re put in because we’re not the large cities. So, it’s time for Washington—and I say Washington, because that’s where the dollars are, that’s where they come from—they need to start trickling down to the smalle city so that we can take care of some of our many long-standing infrastructure needs.

Podesta:

That’s terrific. Mayor Booker, I’m going to turn to you, but I want to remind people if you want to submit a question, please do so. You can do that using the Q&A tab. But Mayor Booker, you talked about the dam, you talked about your water system challenges. How are you finding now the partnership with the federal government and trying to address those needs in a city like a Tryon?

Booker:

At the moment, we’re just waiting on the ARC money. But as far as any additional money, we would definitely welcome that. But if I may, may I throw out some numbers?

Podesta:

Sure.

Booker:

OK, so with our capital improvement plans and projects, we have 25 projects just under our water system itself, and 20 more projects proposed for our source system. And that’s through the year 2035. And our system was built in 1969, and it’s 52 years old. And it itself is $1.4 million. With just our general fund purposes, the total that we will end up with is $4.2 million, but our total capital improvement projects are over $20 million. So yeah, we’re needing as much help as we can possibly get from the federal government. And like I said, we would welcome that just with the numbers that we’re having to deal with in the lack of coming up, at this point, that would be an extra $16 million, even though we’re stretching it out to 2035.

Podesta:

Let’s talk a little bit about what’s going on in Washington and on Capitol Hill. Across the country, I think there’s very strong and popular support for infrastructure. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or Republican or an independent—it’s there. People want to see improvements in their community. They want to see resilience in the infrastructure, as Mayor Piana talked about. But in Washington, everything kind of bogs down. There was a water bill that was passed on a bipartisan basis through the Senate earlier this year. There’s bipartisan negotiations going on infrastructure that the White House is at least participating in. Do you think that what you’re hearing from Washington is meeting the needs that it sounds like your communities are having? The American Jobs Plan, as I noted, is quite robust and the kind of spending that it’s proposing. What’s your message really, I guess, to legislators on both sides of the aisle about the need to get this done and get it done fast? Mayor Piana? Or go ahead, Mayor Vince.

Williams:

John, my message is plain and simple, get off your duff and make it happen. I mean, I’m tired of hearing the rhetoric, and this is what we need to do, and this is what we will do. Look, let’s pass these bills to make sure that the president signs them and gets the money to us. We went through hell during the pandemic, waiting for funding to be able to stand our cities up during COVID. So now we have the American Rescue Plan. All 19,000 cities, towns, and villages across this nation are going to receive direct funding. It’s time for them to pass this infrastructure bill, to make sure that all cities get the support they need to be able to take care of this decrepit infrastructure that we’re dealing with, and we’ve got to have it. We need their support to do it. They’ve got to stop jockeying for who gets the praise about it. It’s about people. We’ve got to get out of this posture that we’re in. I’m sorry.

Podesta:

I got a few amens from the rest of the mayors. Everybody frustrated with the time that it’s taking? Let me link this back to the pandemic. How badly have your budgets being hit through the course of the year? And how are you really planning now that things have opened up more to be able to use some of this infrastructure spending to kind of boost activity in your city to try to create a more stable and sustainable economic platform for the development of communities? Mayor Weinberg, maybe what’s going on in Golden?

Weinberg:

Sure. Yeah, last year was a challenging year for us, just like every other city in the country. We are seeing a strong recovery for our economy. And I think that comes because we are an economic center, we have a number of primary businesses, we’re also a tourist destination. So a lot of the things that were impacted we are seeing coming back this year. Having said that, we delayed a number of projects because we didn’t have the budget for it and didn’t have any idea how long the impacts would last. So we delayed projects in really all areas of this city. And that’s on top of projects that we already didn’t have the funding for, that we had scheduled out for another four, five, six years down the road. So the delays certainly impact our timeframe.

The pandemic also highlighted a number of additional priority areas. So, we had a project identified for broadband, for our community to build out a master broadband fiber ring in the city. And we didn’t have the funding. So we put it into out years, several years down the road, three years to get it done. But what we all saw was the need for that high-speed internet for everybody. It just compounded the problem when people were sent to work from home and they didn’t have access, or students were out of school and they needed to learn from home. So we would really like to accelerate our broadband infrastructure project, get it done sooner than we had originally planned before 2020.

And that’s where I think for us the opportunity for a recovery is to say, how do we take—not just the economic recovery and get back to where we were—but how do we accelerate some of these needs to make sure that our city and our community and our residents and our businesses are ready for the future? And so accelerating projects like our broadband infrastructure or getting high-speed internet to every home is what we’re looking to focus part of our recovery, and looking to hopefully get some support and help and partnership from our federal government to get it done.

Podesta:

Well, one piece of good news is whether they can ever get to yes on a single piece of legislation, at least there seems to be support from that for both sides of the aisle. As I understand the bipartisan package includes not as much money as the president proposed, but at least a significant increase in the amount that’s necessary or the amount the federal government would supply to build up broadband. I think you point out something important that I just want to underscore, which is the role of cities in building out the rings, the infrastructure, the support, so that you have cheaper, more accessible broadband for everyone. So thank you for your leadership on that.

We got some questions from the audience. I’d like to get reaction from everybody, but I’ll start with Mayor Piana because you talked about the fact that you live on no rivers or no lakes, but you have flooding problems. And the question is how has climate change adversely affected the need for infrastructure improvements in your cities? And what does it mean to build back with resilience? Are you feeling those pains already, mayor? It sounded like you were in your opening comments.

Piana:

Yeah, so in 2014, again, we had torrential rains in our region, and a lot of cities experienced flooding. We had to go to FEMA to get a state of emergency, to get flood relief. Eighty percent of the basements in the homes in Ferndale flooded. And really what this comes down to that our region has determined is that our region is getting hotter and wetter, and we need to prepare our infrastructure to accommodate these changes to the climate that are already happening. So we’re really talking about adaptation here. And adaptation for us is really taking a look at our combined water and sewer infrastructure. We don’t have the funds and probably never will to separate those. So really you have to take a look at what goes into them. And our streets are the primary delivery system of water into the combined sewer and water system.

And so, the Woodward project that I had talked about earlier, really when it rains torrential rains, certain sections flood, and it impedes car travel. So we don’t need to have that happen in the future. So we’re really taking a look at how to do green infrastructure on all of our streets, how do we plant more trees to offset our carbon emissions in the community. But really it’s about bioswales, these technical things that cities can do to improve how the water gets filtered into the drains. And with the Woodward project as part of this grant, we are going to put in more trees. But if we had more money, we could be putting bioswales on 30 to 60 intersections along the entire corridor if we had those funds. That’s not in our grant application, but this is what we could be doing if we had those funds to offset the impact of climate in our community as one major example.

Podesta:

Well, we just had the first big tropical storm move through the Southeast. A bunch of people were killed in Alabama. That’s following years of increased storm activity in the Atlantic. From your perspective, mayors, are you beginning to really feel the impact of climate change and its effect on infrastructure? Maybe I’ll start with Mayor Williams and then ask you, Mayor Booker.

Williams:

Well, John, certainly we’re feeling it. I mean, when you think about, and my colleague, Piana, just shared that. When you look at our weather conditions we’re dealing with now, the excessive rains that we’re getting, which causes massive flooding to our communities, but also the hurricanes and tornado seasons are getting just unimaginable when you think about the devastation that these leave behind once they are gone. But also, we are experiencing hotter summers and certainly extremely freezing winters. So that is taking a huge toll on already dilapidated infrastructure that we have. There is certainly a strong connection to climate change that we’re feeling in our communities as it relates to infrastructure.

The thing that really gets me is our federal leaders find the time to continue to bicker over a package that is reasonable for cities, and they want to pull this out, pull that out, or take money from this program and that program. We’ve got to put a package together that solely for infrastructure to make sure that we address these issues. When you think about the people that we serve each and every day in our communities, they don’t call Washington, D.C., about a bridge that’s collapsing, or a pothole, or a sewer backup, they call City Hall. So this is why we need their help. I’ve been instructing my folks, look, reach out to your congressional leaders. You sent them to Washington to do a job. Reach out to your senators. You sent them to Washington to do a job, and if they’re not doing their job we know how to handle that.

Podesta:

I hear you. Mayor Booker.

Booker:

OK, I’d like to say a few years back we had a huge flooding problem, so much that we had mudslides, and it made national news. One of our residents was killed, and a couple of days later, two news people were killed. And the governor did come and assess the problem and so on and so forth. But our main issue just through the town is that it doesn’t have to be a lot of water to have to block our streets off because of their flooding. We’ve got a creek that’s probably about a mile long down through one side of our streets, and it causes a problem. It can flood your house, or you have to work your way back around the city to miss these areas. So climate change, that thing is causing more water to come in our areas.

I think that when we talk about small cities, I would like for our government to think even smaller. I would like for our government to visualize that these small cities are their homes. And with the infrastructure problems that they’re having, what would they do to fix those problems? Or would they fix those problems? Or would they leave those problems alone? But I think that there’s a four-letter word that would probably clear up most of these issues. And that four letter word is love. I think that love handles a lot of problems.

Podesta:

Well, I agree with that. And facing this through a sense of common humanity. Mayor Weinberg, we’ve been talking about too much water. You’ve got too little water. I think it was just over a 100 degrees where you are.

Weinberg:

Yeah, so Colorado is very much affected by climate change, but unlike Michigan, it is hot and dry rather than hot and wet here. Golden has been addressing our water needs and the challenges of water. We have Clear Creek that runs through the heart of our city. And so, we’re a city that’s been around for 162 years. And for 162 years, there has been work and planning around the creek, around preventing flooding, around accessing water. We do have our own water and wastewater utility. So we engage in a lot of long-term planning on making sure that we have enough water for the people who are here and water storage that’s sufficient for our needs. There are certainly different challenges here than in the East.

But for Golden, for the last at least 10 years, longer actually, we have been working toward a set of sustainability goals, a climate resiliency plan, to really address those impacts of a hotter and drier climate in our area; what that means for our water, what that means for our air quality, and what we breathe here in the city. We are part of the metro Denver area, and if you’ve ever been here, you will see the brown cloud of really bad air quality that the entire metro region needs to work on. And so all of these things contribute to the health of our community and our residents. If you don’t have clean air and clean water, you are not going to have healthy people. So we work on a number of fronts. All of it requires funding, planning, and infrastructure improvements to make sure that it’s not just addressing a problem of today, but the problems of 10, 20, 30 years down the road as well.

Podesta:

I’m pretty sure we all know there’s big company that touts the quality of your water. So I’m glad you’re building the resilience into that. Taking the conversation in a little bit different direction, we have a question from the audience, which is: In planning for future infrastructure, are you taking any lessons from recent cyberattacks on infrastructure and access to resources? The most recent one was obviously on the Colonial Pipeline that again, affected gas prices in the mid-Atlantic and the Southeast. But how big of a concern is that for you in your planning process? Mayor Weinberg, maybe I’ll come back to you again.

Weinberg:

Sure. For us, the biggest is in our water utility, because that is the area that has been most at risk. And like many other cities and utilities, I think it became something that we factored into our planning and something we work on ever since 2001. So, it is a part of the planning. It is a concern. It’s also something besides infrastructure, cities have to deal with in so many fronts from our websites and our customer and resident information. We are subject to attacks regularly, and we don’t have the large IT departments and programs that large cities do. So we are constantly having to monitor, upgrade all of those cyberattacks on all of our services beyond just the utilities and the infrastructure.

And over the years, it becomes an increasing part of what we have to do as a city to protect ourselves, and protect our residents, and protect all of the information. And so, as a full-service city where you have water, you have building departments with information, you have public safety in your police and fire. And all of that information and data is subject to cyberattacks, and we are responsible for protecting it. So it has become a bigger part of our job, and over the coming years I suspect it’s going to become even bigger and more critically important.

Podesta:

Well, as a poster child for someone being hacked, I appreciate the pain you’re going through. Anybody else want to jump in on this?

Piana:

Sure, I will. I just wanted to echo what Mayor Weinberg said. About five, six years ago Ferndale did get a ransomware attack, and we took a step back and said, all right, we needed to make more investments in our IT infrastructure. And we do not have the ability to pay for our own IT department that stays on top of all of the technology changes. So it was finding the right local partner to be our IT services provider, but also making sure that we have the right policies in place to ensure that our capital improvement plans upgrades all of our equipment internally for staff on an ongoing basis, and we continue to look at that. But it’s contingent on the local government to make these investments, so that this community is protected and the city’s assets are protected from this. And those costs are increasing annually because more nefarious things keep hitting the market that we have to defend our network against.

Podesta:

Mayor Williams, I saw maybe you want to jump in.

Williams:

Yeah, John, when you think about this issue of cyberattacks, I think about the many cities who unfortunately have been attacked, but they say nothing because many cities think it’s embarrassing. But not only that, smaller cities just cannot—and this has already been shared by two of my colleagues—cannot pay the money that a lot of these pirates are asking for. When you mentioned the Colonial Pipeline, which is a few miles away from me here in Alpharetta, Georgia, I think they were asked for over $5 million. You know what I mean? Apparently, they got the money back, so they say. We don’t know that. But they got the money back. But the thing is, we couldn’t handle a hit like that. I know I couldn’t, let me speak for me. I know I couldn’t handle a $5 million hit in my budget.

But certainly we are doing all the things that we can to make sure that we’re protecting the information that we have as it relates to our citizens but also all of the various departments: our police, our fire, our public services, all of those folks. We go through a lot of training with our various departments to make sure because there are a lot of pirates out phishing daily to try to infiltrate your systems. So those are things we got to be very mindful of to make sure that we’re protecting not only the safety of our information but also sometimes life and health. You just never know how they will try to infiltrate into your water systems. We got to be sure that we are doing best we can as leaders. And again, it goes back to our federal government—we need them to help us. That’s infrastructure. IT is infrastructure.

Podesta:

We’re almost out of time. I got one very specific question for Mayor Booker from the audience, which is: In terms of financing water infrastructure and all the things that you’re looking at, will you be able to tap state revolving loan funds, for example? Will the residents try and have to pay higher fees? What are the equity concerns for your residents as you’re trying to fund this infrastructure?

Booker:

Well, we’re definitely trying not to put that on our residents, but we just did our budget, and the taxes were so that we did raise them just a little, so that will help. But we do look for grants, and we do look for help from the government, and those types of things. So we’re not expecting the citizens to pay $20 million worth of capital improvements. So we will be diligent in getting help for those projects.

Podesta:

Great. OK, so last round. Last thought of anything you want to say to the audience or to members of Congress right now. Mayor Piana, can I start with you?

Piana:

Yeah, I think specifically for small cities, really making sure that the Surface Transportation Block Grant increases the funding for small cities and makes it more flexible. That is a top priority for the National League of Cities, as well as small cities like ours and everyone on this panel.

Podesta:

Mayor Booker?

Booker:

Well, this may seem a little strange to add here, but even the Brood X cicadas, they emerge and take care of business at least every 17 years. So I think it’s time that we from the local level up get about doing the business for our citizens.

Podesta:

I’m hearing what you think the clock looks like. Mayor Weinberg?

Weinberg:

Yeah, there’s already been a lot that has been said, and I just want to highlight a little bit that in order to get all of these great infrastructure projects done—from addressing climate change to water, infrastructure, roads, broadband—we need a trained workforce. It’s not enough to identify the project. It’s not even enough to identify the funding at this point. We have to identify the people and make sure that they have the right skills to take us forward and bring these very needed projects to completion.

Podesta:

That’s great. Mayor Williams, you get the final word.

Williams:

Yes, sir. Look, to my federal leaders but also to those who are listening, America’s cities, towns, and villages everywhere, we are ready to rebuild. But we can’t rebuild alone. We need our federal partners, our state partners, but most definitely our federal partners, to rebuild with us. We want to rebuild together. And that is what this nation was built off—unity. And we’ve got to make sure that our partners that we sent to Washington to look out for us, the little people, look out for the little people. That’s small cities, towns, and villages all across this nation. Make sure that you remember us when you’re sitting in those rooms battling one another; make sure you take care of us. Thank you.

Podesta:

Great closing. I just want to thank the panel. It was really a terrific conversation. We will carry these messages forward as best we can from the Center for American Progress team to Capitol Hill. We expect action, and I think can look forward to some action this summer. So I want to thank you all for your leadership in your own communities but also for your leadership at the national level through the National League of Cities. President Maness, thank you for pulling us all together. It’s been great. I hope you have a great rest of the afternoon. And the one good thing is these Zooms give us a little bit more opportunity to talk to one another sometimes. So thank you all for being here.

Williams:

Thanks, John, it’s been great. Thank you.

Maness:

Thank you, John.

Podesta:

Yeah, thank you, Kathy. That was terrific.

Maness:

OK, I thought it was very good.

Podesta:

We need to press the case up on Capitol Hill.

Maness:

That’s right, absolutely. You have a great day, OK?

Podesta:

OK, you too.

Maness:

Thanks again.