Guest op-ed from Joy Newcom
The men and women elected to lead Iowa’s cities face daunting leadership decisions tied to their COVID-19 responses. This is an unprecedented time –– a time made unpredictable by an unruly virus but also by uncommon, even unstable, state and federal leadership. For example, officials contradict one another during the same press conference, and lending institutions identify inconsistencies inside stimulus initiatives the day after the legislation is passed.
Regardless, Iowa’s city officials must lead, and in the absence of clear state and federal leadership, key aspects of life in Iowa’s cities are dramatically impacted.
Do local hospitals have access to test kits? What about PPEs (personal protective equipment) for local health workers and law enforcement? Is it time to close parks to protect local families? Can main street businesses get loans? Will owners remain in business after the dangers tied to COVID-19 have passed? Will there be enough local jobs when life returns to a new normal?
Gov. Kim Reynolds continues to resist a shelter-in-place order. She resists despite fervent requests from the Iowa Board of Medicine and mayors in cities that comprise our hottest outbreak spots: Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. Not only that, the governor has said she “can’t lock the state down” and also that mayors don’t have the authority to do so either. The leadership void is palpable.
State government has kneecapped local officials before.
In 2016, Iowa’s largest counties voted to raise the minimum wage incrementally to help their largest cities attract and maintain a substantial workforce. In response, state Republicans stomped on home rule authority in 2017 with a state law that froze minimum wage at $7.25. Unfortunately, many local officials sympathetic to Republican ideologies failed to understand what they’d lost. I fear that’s where we are headed again.
People elected to city office for the first time have only a few weeks to learn the nuances of municipal funding – a maze of property tax revenues, fees for services, tax increment financing, and other sources. It doesn’t take long to realize that some political promises can only be kept when others are deferred or denied. An understanding of local economic development has an even steeper curve. The most effective local officials take on an advocacy role and push state and federal officials for the kinds of support their cities need after other sources are exhausted.
Most citizens understand it takes money to run a city. What they might not understand is how unfunded mandates and deferred leadership at state and federal levels turn local governing decisions into nightmares. In 1990, while employed by the Iowa League of Cities, I produced an orientation video for newly elected municipal officials called “Nightmare on Main Street.” The piece satirically addressed the financial realities city officials face soon after their elections. Today, Iowa’s 947 cities face an additional nightmare: keeping citizens safe from an invisible, highly contagious virus while maintaining essential city services.
Funding remains an issue. It’s impossible to project the impact of COVID-19 on city budgets in this or future fiscal years. We just know it will be bad. Local businesses, restaurants, theaters, bars, hair salons, fitness centers, and more are financially harmed. Local families are financially harmed. The ripple effect has only begun and waiting to protect citizens through a stay-at-home order extends the hardship. The exponential cost to cities cannot be calculated, but that doesn’t mean the cost doesn’t exist. Deferred leadership is expensive.
Right now, community spirit rules each day. People load into cars and scoop the loop on a Saturday night to connect while social distancing. Facebook friends swap patterns for face masks and stock local clinics and hospitals with supplies. People buy extra for local food banks to help neighbors in need.
Right now, the impact of COVID-19 is felt mostly by the men, women, and children doing their best to stay home and stay healthy. But not so far off, it will be felt by the cities those families regard as hometowns. Let’s hope citizens keep that spirit alive by also advocating for what their cities and city officials need now and after the virus upheaval settles.
by Joy Newcom
Newcom is a writer, disability rights advocate, and political activist from Forest City.