Eight Big Questions US Mayors Faced in 2018

Key takeaways from annual BU-led Menino Survey on Mayors

In general, the mayors surveyed in BU’s 2018 Menino Survey of Mayors said the so-called sharing economy was helping cities more than holding them back, but that concerns remain, especially about Airbnb, like this one in Boston, and its impact on hotels. Photo by Lisa Cranshaw for the Washington Post via Getty Images.

For hundreds of mayors around the country, 2018 became the Year of Amazon. But for only two of them (the mayors of Arlington, Va., and New York City) did the obsession about landing one of the new headquarters for the online retail king prove worthwhile. For the others (Boston’s among them)? Not so much.

That was just one of the key observations and takeaways from the 2018 Menino Survey of Mayors conducted by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities. Released on Tuesday in Washington, D.C., the annual report collects feedback from more than 100 mayors across the country and provides a measure of how cities are faring and the critical issues they are facing. Only mayors from cities with populations over 75,000 were surveyed.

The survey, now in its fifth year, was founded by the late longtime Boston mayor Thomas M. Menino (Hon.’01), who joined BU after leaving office to become IOC codirector and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of the practice, political science. Menino once said, “Change makes cities, and great change makes great cities.” This year’s survey was led by David M. Glick, a CAS associate professor of political science, and Katherine Levine Einstein and Maxwell Palmer, both CAS assistant professors of political science.

“At a time of deadlock and bitter partisan conflict in Washington, mayors are being asked to pick up the slack and take action to advance our nation’s economy, lift up marginalized groups, mitigate climate change, and maintain aging infrastructure,” Graham Wilson, IOC director and a CAS professor of political science, and Katharine Lusk, executive director, write in the report.

Some of the big questions the 2018 survey revealed:

  • Do Living-Wage Standards Help? There is gridlock in Washington. And the growing divide between red and blue states is reflected in cities across the country. Democratic mayors were much more supportive of ordinances that require some sort of living wage standard to support upward social mobility for their cities’ lower- and middle-class populations, “even if it could result in fewer jobs and some companies relocating elsewhere.” The survey found that no Republican mayors supported living-wage ordinances if it meant a possible loss of jobs and growth. “This divide represents the largest partisan gap we have seen in five years of the Menino Survey of Mayors,” the survey authors note.
  • Tax Breaks to Lure Businesses? Mayors were largely in agreement that while their constituents may not love cities luring companies with financial incentives and tax breaks, those strategies generally work and are necessary to compete with other cities for growth. In essence: Tax breaks are good policy, but potentially bad politically. One unidentified Midwestern mayor was quoted as saying: “No one is thrilled about tax breaks [for corporations], but we would do almost anything to get jobs for the city.”
  • Can Housing Costs Be Fixed? The only issue deemed just as critical as creating more living-wage jobs by the 110 mayors surveyed was the need to create more affordable housing opportunities. This was especially true in cities with a higher cost of living, whereas in cities with lower cost of living, the living-wage jobs issue was the top priority.
  • Were There Lessons to Be Learned from the Amazon Process? Mayors were generally frustrated at how aggressively cities used financial incentives and tax breaks as the core of their pitch to land Amazon’s second headquarters. They suggested that instead, mayors should highlight “workforce skills and composition” and “quality of life” as the leading reason a company should relocate to their city.
  • Is Airbnb Helping or Hurting? The so-called sharing economy, from bike-share programs to home sharing and ride sharing, generally was seen as helping cities more than holding them back, according to the mayors surveyed. But concerns remain, especially about Airbnb and its impact on hotels. “Interestingly, few mayors have concerns that the sharing economy may have disparate benefits across income and racial groups; a majority of mayors believe that the sharing economy has a positive effect across all income levels, for residents of color, and for the business community,” according to the survey.
  • Are Health Challenges a Mayor’s Job? A Governor’s? A President’s? While mayors generally acknowledged the huge health issues their cities face, from obesity, mental health, and hunger to opioid addiction, heart disease, and diabetes, they put more of the burden of addressing those problems on other levels of government, from the state to the federal. So what health challenges should mayors focus on? Traffic deaths, gun violence, exposure to lead and other toxins were among the challenges that mayors said should fall to them to address. However, they acknowledged that they believe “a majority of residents hold them at least a little accountable” for those more societal health issues.
  • Should Pot Be Legal? The growing legalization of marijuana, not surprisingly, elicited widely divisive responses from mayors. A sizable number of mayors supported it, but 35 percent disagreed. “Many mayors suggested that their views on marijuana were less about philosophy or values and more about practical challenges related to policy implementation,” the survey says.
  • Are Racial Problems Getting Better or Worse? This line from the survey was telling: “Roughly 90 percent of mayors disagreed with the statement that “racial problems are rare, isolated situations,” implying that they believe racial concerns are widespread. But there was more of a divide on the issue of how to handle undocumented immigrants. Two-thirds of mayors surveyed supported ensuring that immigrants have access to local services regardless of their status, but 20 percent disagreed.
Author, Doug Most can be reached at dmost@bu.edu.