There’s No Crying in City Finance

Anyone who has seen the movie A League of Their Own, about the first professional women’s baseball league, remembers the famous quote from Tom Hanks’ character, one of the team managers, when confronted with a crying player in the dugout: “You’re crying? There’s no crying in baseball!”

The same can be said about city finance. It might seem that there is plenty to cry about right now. NLC’s recently released research, City Budget Shortfalls and Responses: Projections for 2010-2012, estimates that the shortfall in the city sector from 2010-2012 will be between $56-83 billion. For most cities the full impact of the nation’s economic recession will arrive at their fiscal doorsteps in 2010 and 2011. But, despite these dire predictions, most city leaders aren’t whining about the plight of their cities or crying wolf about cuts they might have to make without outside assistance. The same can’t be said of other levels of government at the moment. The number of “deficit hawks” in the U.S. Congress will increase dramatically in 2010, an election year. Perhaps no state is using a “cry wolf” strategy more than California, where Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed a state budget that essentially says to the federal government “give us $8 billion or else” (“else” being draconian cuts to the state’s safety net programs).

In contrast, a group of mayors that participated in a Mayor’s Innovation Project event in Washington, DC last week painted a dramatically different picture. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper described the choices cities are facing as being about transactions – with the public about what services they most need and those they can do without, and with the federal government about how to make existing federal programs more effective in cities. Gainesville, Florida Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan suggested that even amid tight budget constraints this is a time for cities to make targeted investments, such as her own city’s ongoing investment in solar technologies. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, confronted with a $1 billion shortfall over a five-year period, straightforwardly described decisions including cuts in services and a temporary increase in the city’s sales tax that required state legislative approval. Nutter noted that “We didn’t ask Harrisburg for a dime. We asked them only to give us the power to tax ourselves.”

NLC isn’t Pollyanna-ish about city leaders' difficulties in balancing their budgets. Those difficulties translate into real impacts on quality of life in communities. But, city leaders, perhaps because they see and interact with their residents every day, better understand that there’s no crying in city finance – that being straightforward about the choices they are facing and treating the public as participants in the decision making process creates a better environment for innovation and governance.