Connecting state and local government leaders
Mayor Victoria Woodards of Tacoma, Washington, who stepped into the National League of Cities’ leadership role earlier this month, spoke to Route Fifty about her priorities for the group.
From her time as a local official in Tacoma, Washington, Mayor Victoria Woodards, the new president of the National League of Cities, is no stranger to many of the most urgent issues city governments across the U.S. are dealing with these days.
With Tacoma’s pressured real estate market, levels of homelessness in and around the city are significant and affordable housing is in short supply. Rising gun violence bedevils Tacoma, too. And police jobs can be tough to fill, with the city offering $25,000 signing bonuses to experienced officers who transfer in from other departments.
For some in the booming Puget Sound region, Tacoma offered a refuge in recent years to the nearby Seattle area’s skyrocketing housing costs. The number of residents living in Tacoma surged by about 10% in a decade, to around 219,000 people last year. As the population ballooned, housing costs did as well. In October, the typical single family home price in the city was nearly $502,000, according to a Zillow index, more than double the $194,000 mark in 2014.
On the infrastructure front, a regional transit agency has a major light rail project underway and there are plans to eventually connect with a line running through Seattle. That rail link would provide an alternative to driving along the often-jammed Interstate 5 corridor, and would also further cement the city as an important hub in an economically thriving part of the country.
These sorts of trends and challenges are not unique to Tacoma. Different variations are playing out in metro areas around the country, especially with affordable housing and difficulties filling government jobs. So, in this sense, Woodards is, perhaps, well-suited to lead NLC.
The mayor was elected by her peers to a one-year term as the group’s president during the League’s City Summit, held this month in Kansas City, Missouri. She moved up from the first vice president position and will replace Union City, Georgia Mayor Vince Williams.
“As people have said to me, I'm the right leader for this time,” Woodards told Route Fifty in an interview at the event.
Located about 30 miles south of Seattle, Tacoma is often seen as the bigger city’s scrappier smaller sibling. It is home to one of the West Coast’s busiest ports and parts of the waterfront retain a heavy industrial footprint. But the city also has charm, with its historic architecture, dynamic neighborhoods, amenities like the 760-acre Point Defiance Park and commanding views of Puget Sound and the looming, glacier-caked volcano, Mount Rainier.
Woodards, an Army veteran, has served as mayor since 2018 and prior to that held a City Council seat for seven years. She says she wants to focus her time as NLC’s president on a three-pronged theme of “people, partnerships and possibilities.”
“It's been a really difficult two and a half years, almost three years, for our cities, towns and villages,” she said. “I wanted to talk about something that gave us a little bit of hope and inspiration, to look forward.” Woodards added: “I didn't pick that theme because they were flowery words, I picked that theme, because that's my philosophy. And that's how I work."
Asked for an example of how Tacoma has embraced this philosophy, the mayor pointed to a rise in high school graduation rates after news reports in the earlier 2000s labeled Tacoma’s schools “dropout factories.” At that time, graduation rates were around 55%. In the years since, they’ve climbed to around 90%. Woodards credits broad, partnership-oriented efforts that the local school district, city government and others took part in for the turnaround.
“We recognize that everyone plays a role in the success of our young people. And so business leaders, community-based organizations, all government entities, all came together, our faith leaders came together to say: ‘How can we all work together?’” she said.
Woodards also emphasized that, in her view, “the best ideas don't have to start with the elected leader. But it is government who has the power of convening.”
As for specific policy topics, she said that affordable housing and workforce development are two that she plans to zero in on with NLC.
“We're seeing a whole bunch of people who still are not working,” she said, referring to pandemic-era employment. “And it's not just about a job, it's about getting a good family wage job, so that people can take care of themselves and their families.”
A big part of NLC’s work is advocacy at the federal level and the mayor was quick to defend the $65 billion dollars in direct pandemic aid that the American Rescue Plan Act sent to cities and other smaller localities.
“ARPA funding is critical,” Woodards said, adding that, without the aid that the law provided, Covid’s hit to the local economy and tax revenue would have likely forced Tacoma to make cuts across multiple city agencies, including the fire department. Having the money enabled the city to instead move ahead with new spending in areas like preventing homelessness, she said.
Heading into Tacoma’s 2021-22 biennial budget cycle, the city had a $20 million shortfall, and was projecting gaps in the $30 million to $35 million range over the two-year fiscal period to come (although it’s likely some of that deficit would have been avoided with the Covid vaccine rollout). In any event, ARPA provided about $61 million to help the city patch its budget and cover pandemic-related costs.
Woodards stressed that it was important that ARPA aid went straight to localities, rather than getting funneled through states.
“We are the ones who know what our community needs,” she said.
NLC and other state and local government associations may find themselves having to make a stronger case in the months ahead for why the billions in state and local pandemic assistance made sense. Republicans rising to committee leadership positions in the U.S. House, now that their party has won control of the chamber, have pledged tougher scrutiny of how the money is getting spent and have been drumming up examples of places they believe are using it recklessly.
“What I would say to them is: ‘Get back out into their districts, and look at the projects,’” Woodards said of lawmakers who’ve been critical of the ARPA funding. “It is not wasteful.”