July 15, 2011; Source: Washington Post | Mayors of Atlanta, Chicago, Louisville, Ky., Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans will receive over $24 million dollars to help their communities,  thanks to the generosity of one of their peers.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s foundation, the Bloomberg Philanthropies, announced that the mayor’s initiative will fund innovative programs in these five major cities to address local issues like homelessness, gun violence, and entrepreneurship. Cities selected have all have mayors elected within the last 18 months.

Each city was given three years to work on two initiatives. The cities will use the funds to address diverse community problems:

  • Atlanta Mayor Reed will lead the effort to create a 311 phone system that will  improve the city’s customer relations with citizens. Grant money will also address  homelessness.
  • Mayor Emanuel of Chicago pledges to encourage entrepreneurship by streamlining permits and  licenses, with a focus on reducing energy use.
  • Memphis will tackle two priorities: revive areas cut off by highway construction and approach handgun violence as a public health issue. Memphis Mayor Wharton also pledges to lure investment capital to the city.
  • Louisville plans to work with Lexington to implement a new export strategy and improve public accountability.
  • New Orleans will focus its efforts on reducing homelessness.

Projects will be done by groups led by staff outside the city government with measurable goals and outcomes. Collaboration with other groups will be encouraged.

Leaders in public policy acknowledge this initiative is a great development. Bruce Katz of the Brookings Institution says, “This is a well-structured, resourced, bottom up innovation that is reflective of the local challenges that many cities face.” He adds, “The long-term effect of this is not just the individual innovations, but the ability  to spread innovation across the country.”

Other observers might turn out to be a little less sanguine about the Bloomberg grants. There was no open competition process. Rather, the Bloomberg Foundation generated a list of the 100 largest cities and then excluded all but those with strong-mayor forms of government. The list — and the potential fundable innovations — were discussed with Brookings Institution staff, which makes sense since Brookings has long supported a concept of focusing national investment in the top 100 cities for the best possible boost to economy. The articulation of this strategy is laid out clearly in the Brookings Institution’s 2008 Blueprint for American Prosperity, which was very influential with the incoming Obama administration.

It is more than just unprecedented for a billionaire mayor to be handing out grants to his counterparts in other major cities to support a particular vision of large city governance. Michael Bloomberg-as-philanthropist can provide grant support from his personal foundation to whatever he wants, but his other identity as the mayor of New York City gives his foundation grants a public policy cast. The grantwinning mayors are not about to look a gift horse in the mouth, but the mayors of mid-sized and smaller cities, not to mention policy-makers in rural areas, might find the Bloomberg/Brookings approach as one that leaves them out of the running.—Nancy Knoche and Rick Cohen