The rising importance of cities is well-documented: over 80 percent of Americans now live in urban areas, and the growth of cities far outstrips that of the country as a whole. In Ohio, roughly 90 percent of residents currently live in one the state’s six largest metro areas. With no foreseeable end in sight, urban migration will place increasing pressure on city governments to provide effective policy solutions.
Unfortunately, city governments have not been receiving the support they need from Columbus. From 2004 to 2014, disbursements of state-sponsored funds to local government have been cut almost in half, hampering cities’ ability to provide essential services and undertake long-overdue growth projects. Just how big is the revenue hole for Ohio’s cities and townships? Local government funding over the next two years is expected to be more than $623 million less than it was in 2008-2009, according to a recent investigation by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Luckily, Ohio’s cities are also home to some of its most ambitious innovators. Perhaps the brightest example of Ohio’s leadership came this week as the City of Columbus received word that it was selected as the recipient of $50 million as part of the US Department of Transportation’s new Smart Cities grant. City leaders successfully pitched Columbus to USDOT and its private funding partners, emphasizing the ways that intelligent transportation systems can address socioeconomic barriers to employment and serve an increasingly urbanized young professional population. The Columbus team beat out five other finalists including Austin, Portland and San Francisco for funding that will fund high-tech infrastructure, create mobility options in low-income neighborhoods and reduce climate impacts.
In recent years, cities and villages across the Buckeye state have developed innovative new approaches to a number of critically important issues:
Last year, under the leadership of mayors Nan Whaley and John Cranley, Dayton and Cincinnati passed generous paid family leave policies for city employees, joining a growing list of major cities around the country. At the rollout of Dayton’s paid family leave plan, Mayor Nan Whaley remarked that “Paid parental leave is not only the right thing to do, but it strengthens women and families, reduces gender based economic disparities, has positive impacts on local economies, and improves health outcomes.”
At a recent meeting of the Newburgh Heights city council, members voted unanimously to provide six months of paid leave to all city employees, at 100% of salary. The policy is the first of its kind in the United States, and has attracted the attention of Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, who praised mayor Trevor Elkins as “a leader on an issue that keeps people up at night.”
The Newburgh Heights decision has once again shone a light on the potential for cities to serve as incubators of policy innovation.
In addition to its robust paid leave policy, Cincinnati has put into place a $15 minimum wage for city employees, expanded the range of triggers for prevailing wage requirements, and passed a hard-hitting wage theft ordinance that would revoke licenses from companies convicted of committing wage theft and require the reimbursement of victims. On Tuesday, Franklin county commissioners followed Cincinnati’s lead in passing a new ‘living wage’ ordinance for county employees. Building on the momentum of its southern neighbors, the Service Employees International Union is leading the charge to introduce a $15 minimum wage in the city of Cleveland.
In Columbus, Councilwoman Elizabeth Brown proposed, and fellow Council members unanimously adopted the Healthcare Worker and Patient Protection Ordinance, aimed at ensuring that healthcare workers and patients can enter healthcare facilities without fear of harassment, intimidation, or stalking. The law is based on model ordinances already in place in Colorado, Massachusetts, and NYC. And Cuyahoga County was the first in Ohio to place a ban on official travel to North Carolina after the state adopted a law that eliminates legal protections for the LGBT community.
These examples, as well as countless other bold, forward-facing policies introduced by city lawmakers, serve to illustrate the tremendous wealth of leadership that we enjoy in the State of Ohio. City leaders are paving the way for a brighter, more equitable future, by making our cities attractive places to work and live. It is time that the Ohio legislature stepped behind these efforts by providing Ohio’s innovators with the resources and funds necessary to amplify and expand municipal programs.