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Vision: The 5 Smartest Policies Enacted by American Cities in 2010

Developers wanting tax breaks had to ensure that workers in the taxpayer-subsidized hotels, supermarkets, or office buildings were paid the industry-standard prevailing wage.
 
 
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Denver Sparks Parental Involvement En Espanol

The experts agree: parental involvement has strong positive effects on students' achievement in school. When parents are engaged with their child's education, attendance improves, grades and test scores go up, and graduation rates rise. But how can school districts involve parents who don't speak English? In Denver, where three in five students are Latino and many have parents with poor English skills, the school system has taken to the radio waves. Through an hour-long weekly program called "Educa" (educate) the Denver Public Schools connect with Spanish-speaking parents about school policies, events, and issues in public education. Parents can also call in with questions about their children's school and the education system. The first-of-its-kind program broadcasts on three popular Spanish-language radio stations and has more than doubled its audience -- to 54,200 unique listeners -- over just a few months. For engaging immigrant parents in a format that speaks to them, the Denver schools' multicultural outreach efforts come in loud in clear on our list of the best policies of 2010.

Good Jobs Prevail in Pittsburgh

Eager for new development and jobs, cities commonly give developers multi-million dollar tax breaks to sweeten the pot and to get shovels in the ground. But when subsidies are given to projects that create low-wage jobs that keep families in poverty, taxpayers get the short end of the stick. Workers making poverty-level wages at publicly subsidized developments must still rely on public assistance like food stamps, Medicaid, or rental assistance. The result is economic dependence more than economic development. To make sure that taxpayer investments would pay off for city residents, Pittsburgh passed a common-sense piece of legislation: if a developer wanted tax breaks for a new development, workers in the new taxpayer-subsidized hotels, supermarkets, or office buildings must be paid the industry-standard prevailing wage. In an affirmation of the law's successful implementation in Pittsburgh, the surrounding Allegheny County quickly adopted a similar law. For ensuring that public tax dollars create good jobs with decent wages, Pittsburgh's prevailing wage law earns a spot on our list of 2010's best public policies.

Less Lock-up in New York

Treating young offenders like hardened criminals makes no sense -- sending a kid in trouble to a juvenile prison greatly increases that young person's chance of becoming an adult offender. Detaining kids also costs more money than community-based programs, which have a much better track record of preventing future criminality. Luckily, New York City is moving to eliminate unnecessary detention for youthful offenders, many of whom would otherwise be locked up while simply awaiting trial. The city is putting more kids into effective community-based alternatives to detention and reserving secure detention for only the most violent youthful offenders. New assessment tools have been developed to determine which youth should be sent to secure detention and which would be better served in the community. The bottom line is that secure detention for youth is now seen as the option of last resort, rather than the default option. For doing what's best for youth, the community, and the taxpayer, New York City's juvenile justice reforms are among this year's best public policies.

My Way or the Highway in Austin

In Austin, TX, whose frustrating traffic congestion provided the backdrop for the movie "Office Space," drivers waste an average of one and a half days stuck in traffic every year. Some business leaders pushed for a conventional response to congestion: wider roads and more highways. But the city opted to go down a different path. Recognizing that they could never build enough highways to eliminate traffic congestion, lawmakers instead put a$90 million bond issue on the ballot to improve Austin's existing streets and make them more hospitable to pedestrians and bicycles. According to blogger Austin Contrarian, "Most of Austin's roads outside of the central core were laid when the city was more rural than urban. No sidewalks, no bicycle lanes, no sewers, no street trees. But once rural roads now cut through major population centers." Austin voters approved the bonds on November 2nd. For affirming that transportation investments must include more than just new highway miles, Austin's bond walks straight onto our list of the best policies of 2010.

Cleveland Sues the Banks

It's the story of the decade: Ameriquest, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs, and other banks raked in record profits speculating on mortgages, pushing more and riskier home loans onto borrowers who clearly never had the means to pay them back. Then the house of cards collapsed. Foreclosure rates soared and cities were left to pick up the pieces. Arson, property deterioration, and crime in neighborhoods devastated by foreclosure imposed steep costs on municipalities just as the recession decimated their tax base. So some cities decided to fight back. The 2010 documentary "Cleveland vs. Wall Street" tells the story of one such fight, as the city of Cleveland sued more than twenty major banks for setting off a chain of events with negative consequences "entirely foreseeable by Wall Street." When a federal appeals court rejected the case earlier this year, Cleveland announced it would continue its fight to the Supreme Court. For striving to hold Wall Street accountable for the devastation it wreaked in its neighborhoods, Cleveland's suit wins a place on our best policy of 2010 list

John Petro contributed to this post.

Amy Traub is Associate Director of Research for the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy.
 
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