New York's billionaire mayor is handing out a combined $24 million in grants to five colleagues around the country to fund programs addressing various issues in their cities, from energy efficiency to handgun violence.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the grants Thursday as part of the Mayors Project, a new government innovation program at his charity, Bloomberg Philanthropies. The grants will go to the mayors of Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Ky.; Memphis, Tenn.; and New Orleans.
"Mayors are uniquely positioned to tackle some of our most pressing challenges," Bloomberg said in a statement. "The Mayors Project will fuel these efforts by spreading effective programs and strategies between cities and helping mayors work together in new ways around solutions."
Bloomberg formed his eponymous philanthropy organization to handle all his donations. Forbes ranks him as the 10th richest American, with a net value of $18 billion as of March.
In his inauguration speech, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed pledged to improve his city's approach to customer service and to help all its residents. He was sidetracked by the urgent need to balance the budget and tackle pension reform, but now plans to renew his focus on those original goals with help from Atlanta's share of the grant.
All of the mayors chosen are in their first 18 months of their terms in office. The money will pay the salaries of teams operating outside of city governments, who will help cities carry out and manage their plans with set goals to measure success. The project will also identify groups of cities interested in working together on particular issues to share best practices.
Each city chose two initiatives and will have three years to tackle them. Reed said Atlanta will use its $3.4 million to create a 311 phone system to improve customer service and to address homelessness and panhandling.
"After we really faced the challenges of getting our fiscal house in order, I wanted to focus on issues that have to do with the quality of life and how people think and feel and experience the city," Reed said in a telephone interview.
Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton Jr. said his city's $4.8 million will help attract the intellectual capital he needs to lure investment without angering cash-strapped citizens.
"There has to be a degree of independence from the fiercely competing demands of municipal government," he said in a telephone interview. "I'm having trouble keeping parks open. I'm laying off people here. The unions are suing me. It's hard to reach into that same kitty and say: `I want to dream big.' As good as that may be, that's just a hard sell."
Wharton will tackle two priorities: revive areas of Memphis cut off by highway construction and approach handgun violence as a public health crisis. He said the grant allows him to capitalize on existing momentum in his city.
"We've been on a roll here in Memphis," Wharton said. "The city is anxious. The people are ready for these big changes. We just haven't been able to really bring in the talent that we need to envision, develop and actualize these plans and take advantage of the rebirth of spirit that this city is now undergoing."
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel aims to cut the amount of time aspiring entrepreneurs wait in line to start a new business, get a permit or obtain a new license, and will focus on significantly reducing energy use. Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer wants to partner with the city of Lexington to implement a new regional export strategy and improve public accountability. New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu wants to reduce homicides.
Bruce Katz, director of the metropolitan policy program for the Washington-based Brookings Institution, called the initiative a great development.
"This is well-structured, resourced, bottom-up innovation that is reflective of the fiscal challenges that many cities face," Katz said. "The recovery is very sluggish. Job growth is anemic, and we're losing public sector jobs. The long-term effect of this is not just the individual innovations, but the ability to spread innovation across the country."