PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The country’s economic crisis dominated the agenda at last Friday’s opening of the national mayors’ conference, with big-city leaders telling of their struggles with mounting foreclosures, double-digit unemployment rates and falling tax revenues.
“Every one of us are on the front lines of an historic and unprecedented economic crisis facing our cities, at least in our own lifetimes,” said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who reported that unemployment in his city had risen from 8 percent in October to 12.5 percent in March.
The 77th annual meeting, which started last Friday and ran through Monday, is the first for the U.S. Conference of Mayors since the throes of the recession began and is focused on the federal economic stimulus package. Mayors from Miami, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle and about 200 other cities attended.
The gathering has largely been overshadowed by the absence of Vice President Joe Biden and other officials from President Barack Obama’s administration, who skipped the event to avoid crossing a picket line and taking sides in a labor dispute between Providence Mayor David Cicilline and the city’s firefighter union.
Cicilline said he was “disappointed by the decision of the Obama administration not to attend this meeting, when this nation and its cities are facing such extraordinarily serious economic challenges.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the Obama administration was taking no position on the labor dispute, but would respect the picket line.
“We understand that this will prevent numerous administration officials from having a very useful and important dialogue with America’s mayors at this meeting, and we will redouble our efforts to continue the dialogue in other ways,” Gibbs said.
A survey of more than 90 cities, from Alameda, Calif., to Kansas City, Mo., released last Friday showed problems including fewer building permit applications, cuts in state aid to municipalities, lower property values and real estate assessments and declining income from investments.
Miami Mayor Manny Diaz said he and his counterparts across the country were being forced to lay off workers and reduce salaries, among other measures.
“We have to balance our budgets,” Diaz said, “and we cannot print money every week.”
Dozens of firefighters picketed across the street from the conference, held at the Providence Convention Center. They held signs that said “Cicilline (equals) DemoRat” and wore T-shirts that said “Fire Cicilline.”
“I think it’s a watershed moment for labor to have the attention and support of the White House on a local issue like this,” said Paul Doughty, president of the firefighters’ union, Local 799.
Other topics on the agenda at the mayors’ conference include gun violence, energy independence and the 2010 Census.
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