America's cities need a new federal partnership

America's cities need a new federal partnership
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Today, every city in the country is facing a once-in-a-generation financial, public health and economic crisis. While some cities were prospering before the pandemic, the small and mid-sized cities that already were struggling now are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 recession.

As mayors, we know how years of economic and population decline can leave communities particularly vulnerable to challenges, all but forgotten by the federal government. Yet we know that our cities can rise to the occasion and prosper again. With the right partner in the White House and federal fiscal relief tailored to the specific needs of cities, our communities can tackle the mounting obstacles of this moment and be on the forefront of efforts to “build back better” — stronger, more resilient, more equitable.

Because of population sizes, none of our cities received direct federal funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March. Instead, our cities were dependent on state allocations. Moreover, CARES funds could not be used to address revenue shortfalls.   


Given the remarkable lack of federal response since, we have been left to tackle the fiscal impacts of the pandemic alone, while at the same time finding ways to support our residents and small-business owners through these challenging months. Without fiscal relief, cities such as ours may not have the resources necessary for economic recovery. We will face tough funding decisions that would only prolong the economic crisis.

There is no denying the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on communities of color, exposing the structural and social determinants of access to health care. Equitable recovery is critical for our cities and will require solutions centered on those who are most impacted, as well as investments to address longstanding economic issues with a racial justice lens. 

To fuel a recovery, the federal government must make investments in education, housing, infrastructure and workforce development. Direct fiscal relief is needed to support basic city services and fund first responders in all cities.

But in cities that have been hit hardest — especially small and mid-sized cities — the federal government needs to move away from a one-size-fits-all model. We need a federal government that is a true partner, working on how best to apply federal resources and support specific comeback plans for individual cities. 

That means creating individual blueprints to revive local economies in a way that overcomes longstanding disparities in employment and income based on race and ethnicity. It means supporting locally-driven fair housing strategies. And it means providing vital technical assistance to local governments to come up with financial plans to support equitable recovery long after the immediate crisis has passed. 


In 2013, as part of Obama administration’s Strong Cities Strong Communities initiative, the National Resource Network was created to support economic recovery in more than 60 challenged cities. By working with mayors and city managers, the network helped to grow jobs, revitalize neighborhoods, prepare the workforce and stabilize city budgets and operations. Led by private and nonprofit organizations, and funded through federal dollars that were matched with philanthropic and city and state resources, the network provided something that other federally-funded programs could not — one-of-a-kind technical assistance designed to meet cities where they were.

We know this type of federal assistance works because we’ve experienced it firsthand. In Danville, Va., the network helped spur investment in revitalization and fair, quality and affordable housing. In Providence, R.I., the initiative helped address a budget gap so that direct investments could be made in neighborhoods, in children, and infrastructure. For the City of Rockford, Ill., the network developed a multi-year financial and strategic plan, as well as a strategy for neighborhood revitalization, and for Scranton, Pa., an implementation plan for downtown revitalization and a strategy for improving the fiscal stability of local public schools. 

The election of Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden prepares to confront Putin Ukrainian president thanks G-7 nations for statement of support Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting MORE brings an encouraging opportunity to apply the network’s past effort and success to the current fiscal, economic and health challenges. With federal funding and technical assistance to help develop equitable recovery and fiscal stability, we know that the communities we serve can rebound and prosper — and help others to do the same.

Paige Gebhardt Cognetti is the mayor of Scranton, Pa.; Jorge Elorza is the mayor of Providence, R.I.; Alonzo Jones is the mayor of Danville, Va.; and Thomas McNamara is the mayor of Rockford, Ill.