Image: Barack Obama, The Unites States Conference of Mayors
Hans Deryk  /  AP file
In a June 21 speech to mayors in Miami, candidate Barack Obama promised to invest in "America's essential but crumbling infrastructure."
Investigative reporter Bill Dedman of
By Bill Dedman Investigative reporter
updated 11/13/2008 6:05:08 AM ET 2008-11-13T11:05:08

America's mayors are crying out for help from President-elect Barack Obama, seeking immediate relief from a national economic crisis that has slammed budgets in big cities, suburbs and small towns.

Responding to an informal survey by, many mayors called for a program in the style of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration to put people back to work and rebuild neglected roads, bridges and schools. The economy was by far the most frequently mentioned problem, and fixing the nation's infrastructure the most frequently mentioned solution. queried more than 1,000 mayors by e-mail just after Election Day, seeking their top two suggestions for the president-elect's "to do" list. They have a lot to say. We heard from 205 mayors in 48 states and Puerto Rico, ranging from big cities such as Phoenix all the way down to tiny Creedmoor, N.C. (population 2,232). You can see their responses on our online map , or read all the responses in one text file. And you can read suggestions from our readers , or offer your own ideas for the new president.

"Main Street America is in trouble," wrote Mayor Jerry Abramson of Louisville, Ky. "Washington bailed out Wall Street to the tune of $700 billion. We need Washington to step up and help America's metro areas create jobs and economic growth by passing an immediate Main Street stimulus, not a bailout but an investment."

In Rutland, Vt., Mayor Christopher C. Louras described a water pipe that was aged when Roosevelt took office and still hasn't been replaced. "Re-establish the WPA with the express purpose of rebuilding the antiquated public works infrastructure plaguing communities nationwide," he said. "Over half of Rutland City’s 90 miles of water mains are in excess of 100 years old. Their deteriorated condition affects public safety (through substandard firefighting capacity), public health (through potential catastrophic failure and contamination), and economic development efforts (because they cannot meet businesses’ needs). One specific main along U.S. Rte. 4 (one of the most developable tracts in Vermont) was cast and installed in 1858 by the men who three years later picked up their muskets to preserve the Union, and it is more a liability than an asset."

Whatever issues they cited, the mayors spoke of their concerns as interrelated. Rising health insurance costs for public employees make it hard for communities to meet their rising responsibilities for public housing and health care in hard economic times, they said. A national energy policy could save on energy costs, add jobs and protect the environment. The foreign wars are a hometown security issue, too, because they draw resources away from putting cops on the street.

"The two most important things that the new president can do for my town is get us out of Iraq and start sending money to towns and cities for local water and sewer projects and street improvements," wrote Mayor Alvin Woodlief, Jr., from Oxford, N.C., population 8,338.

Here's a count of priorities cited by the mayors, with selected replies:

The Economy (97 mentions)
"The mortgage crisis has ravaged my city, and we need help ASAP. $19.5 million has been allocated to R.I., however it seems that nobody knows how the funds will be allocated to each eligible community," wrote Mayor Charles D. Moreau of Central Falls, R.I., population 18,928.

Infrastructure (75)
If there is to be a new economic stimulus package, IT MUST BE TARGETED TOWARD INFRASTRUCTURE," said an emphatic Mayor Andrew Halverson of Stevens Point, Wis., population 24,551. "We could accomplish two goals simultaneously as a nation: 1. Put people to work in good paying jobs, and 2. Fix what is simply the greatest 'silent crisis' facing this country: our roads, bridges, water systems, as well as our sewer systems. Not to mention the need for new school buildings as well. Let's create a 21st century WPA that not only stimulates the economy but produces long term solutions at the same time. What are we going to do with another check besides pay down personal debt the country already owes. Let's stimulate and build at the same time. That seems to me to be a good use of $300-400 billion."

Taxes, budgets, unfunded mandates (49)
"The biggest problem facing all mayors is EPA's non-funded mandates," wrote Mayor Bob Armstrong of Defiance, Ohio, population 16,465. "Each city's citizens' water and sewer rates will be at a level where some will not be able to pay. People living outside the city limits will be paying two and one-half times the rate as the city rates. Their rates could reach $350-$400 per month for an average family. ... We are all for clean air and clean water, but we must make it affordable. I encourage the federal government to change or regulate EPA laws."

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Energy (35)
"There needs to be a program through which assistance (financial, technical, and possibly legal) can be provided to local and regional governments to give us the capacity and opportunity to participate in the nation's energy independence efforts in a meaningful manner," said Mayor Michael A. Tautznik of Easthampton, Mass., population 15,994. "Existing green energy programs rely on the actions of the for-profit marketplace, using income tax credits and private sector trading expertise to make the difference in successful implementation. Government energy use is significant and extremely visible. Making it the focus of such initiatives would go a long way toward instilling that same ethic in our constituents."

National security /wars (27)
Mayors differed strongly on the approach Obama should take in regard to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they agreed that the money spent on them could be better used at home. Some called for a quick pullout, while others want to press on to victory.

"The war," Mayor Cleo Mathews of Hinton, W.V., population 2,880, said in listing his top concern. "It has taken a tremendous toll on the economy, funds available for projects in this country. But more importantly, the human toll — the casualties, the injuries, the strain on families of servicemen who have had up to four and five tours of duty. West Virginia is a state that is well represented in military service. These folks take the brunt of what is happening to our overstretched military."

But Mayor Al Pavliscsak of Toccoa, Ga., population 9,323, wrote that "the first thing President-elect Barack Obama (PEBO) should do is get a grip on national security. While most of the country apparently doesn't remember; we are at war on two fronts, i.e. Iraq and Afghanistan. There are terrorists living among us here in America. Our troops can't fight these wars with one hand tied behind their back following the edicts of panty-waist politicians."

Health care (23)
"One of the biggest issues we face and that we cannot control are the rising costs for providing health care and supporting three defined-benefit pension plans," wrote Mayor Richard Friedberg of Meadville, Pa., population 13,685. "In our case, premiums for health care will increase by 40 percent for 2009, which is about 40 percent of our currently projected budget deficit. Like many other cities, we are forced to reduce the number of employees (which we have been doing for the past 10 years) to avoid a large tax increase. This does not help us fulfill our mandate to provide for public safety, especially at a time when crime will likely increase. We need a national health care plan."

Public safety (14)
"First I would ask that hometown security be placed on the agenda as well as homeland security," said Mayor Salvatore J. Panto Jr. of Easton, Pa., population 26,263. "Here in the cities we need police officers. We need to take our streets back from the gangs and drug dealers."

Immigration (13)
"I had the good fortune to meet and speak with (for all of 30 seconds) then-Senator Obama at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami three months ago," recalled Mayor Richard P. Montgomery of Manhattan Beach, Calif., population 33,852. "I asked him then what I will tell you now. My hope is that the next president will pay the state of California back the costs we have incurred due to illegal immigration. The costs paid by the state of California were for law enforcement, jail, hospital and schools. All of these 'free' services were provided to illegal immigrants because of a failed federal immigration policy. Obama's answer to me (which was also heard by the mayor of Redondo Beach, Mike Gin) was, 'You are absolutely right, the next president will have to address that problem.'"

Other (76), including education and housing
"Unfunded education mandates are crippling our town’s budget each year," said Kathryn Fagan, chairwoman of the board of selectmen in Milton, Mass., population 26,062. "Our teachers struggle to provide excellent education to all children no matter their needs, but federal and state regulations, without the funds to support these mandates, are causing dramatic cuts in services each year and pitting school and public safety needs against each other for increasingly limited funds."

Many mayors took the opportunity to voice singular concerns that no one else mentioned.

"Cell phones," said Mayor Mary Anne Lynch of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, population 9,068. "I would like mandatory universal cell phone chargers. How many of us have boxes of used chargers that only fit one phone? A small issue, but why are we filling our landfills with this stuff? Bring on the universal charger!"

For Village President Margaret "Peggy" Fuller of Harwood Heights, Ill., population 8,297, "media distortion" was the issue on her mind.

"Too often in my small village, what happens at our local board meetings is in stark contrast to what is published in the local newspaper," she wrote. "Perhaps local papers would like to attract subscribers by making egregious errors of omission, but it is now commonplace for a one-sided view of local governing actions to exist for our village. As an insulting, scary side-effect, politicians are trying to take office based on the poor media coverage. Obama must confront education not only for our youth but for our average citizen. He should target the improper use of local media outlets just as he did to help defend his national presidential campaign."

The mayors have a lot more to say, struggling to limit themselves to the 150-word limit imposed on our survey.

"Thank you for this opportunity to respond. I have exceeded 150 words," wrote Mayor Steve Brockett of Alamogordo, N.M., pop. 35,852. "That does not make me a bad person, just a caring mayor."

However they voted in the election, many mayors said they had high hopes for an Obama presidency. In Franklin, Tenn., a Republican area in a Republican state, Mayor John Schroer called on Obama to be a uniter.

"I believe his number one challenge, even more important than the economy, is to bring this country together," Schroer wrote. "I have never before seen the divisiveness that affects this country. I think he has the unique ability to help bridge the gap. I pray that he understands his importance in this task and that he looks past the partisan politics and focuses on what is right.

"I have heard people who know him say that he is a man that is determined to do what is right for America, regardless of the politics involved. Our country needs that more than ever, and I believe he has been called to do just that."

Interactive map: Mayors’ ‘to do’ list

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