By Ally Freeman
The 1600-plus municipal officials who descended on Washington last week for NLC's Congressional City Conference heard a resounding message from administration officials: be active and engaged in the policy conversations and decisions happening in Washington.
Nearly every administration official who addressed Monday's afternoon general session called on the city leaders to take it upon themselves, as leaders of their communities who understand the implications of federal policy, to actively participate in the ongoing policy process in the nation's capital.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told leaders that they know— better than anyone— both costs of poor health in a community, and the benefits of improving health.
Sebelius spoke in-depth about the upcoming timetable and process for the Affordable Care Act implementation, as well as Medicaid expansion.
She reminded the audience that their voices within the discussion of Medicaid expansion in states are especially critical, and that policymakers in Washington need to hear more of their ‘local government pragmatism.'
"As CEOs of the city, we hope the question of whether costs outweigh benefits is conversation you'll be a part of," Sebelius said. "If you aren't actively engaged, please think about it because your voices need to be heard."
Following Secretary Sebelius, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan struck a familiar chord with the city leaders in attendance; Donovan previously worked in municipal government, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York City.
Donovan told the audience that Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) remains the centerpiece of HUD's community development efforts, despite the cuts to the program.
"To ensure continued strong support for CDBG in future, we'll work with all our grantees across country and come back to Congress and show the difference its making," Donovan said.
He added that the department is adding a suite of new planning tools to help local leaders administer the grant and demonstrate their value, and that HUD staff will be reaching out to local leaders for more feedback on how to improve CDBG.
Donovan reminded the audience that the success of a region is tied to how a region manages its resources as a whole. He talked about cities and towns coming together to collaborate on a shared economic future, and said the most successful examples of sustainable communities have demonstrated the ability to focus on ways to create partnerships.
"[The] Transformation of our neighborhoods and communities doesn't happen because of federal grants alone, it happens when all stakeholders start coming together to build consensus about future of a region," Donovan said.
General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, closed the session with a discussion on reintegrating veterans into communities across the country. He asked the audience to give the returning veterans a chance, and to challenge them.
"As we downsize—and make no mistake about it, we will—we will be placing many of these young veterans back into your communities... I want you to see them for the incredible resource that they are and embrace them as fellow citizens," General Dempsey said.