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Mayors Warn Congress That Sequestration Could Hit City Services


Dozens of mayors are here in Washington this week trying to pressure Congress to head off the automatic budget cuts and find a solution. Scott Smith is the mayor of Mesa, Arizona, a Republican and vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He joins me here in our studio. Mayor Smith, welcome.

MAYOR SCOTT SMITH: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Explain your mission here. What do you really hope to do?

SMITH: Well, our mission here seems to be the same mission that we've tried to complete time after time after time, which is to have Washington get on with the business of making decisions. And our greatest concern about sequestration is - isn't even so much what might happen if sequestration does come to pass, but the fact that it's a process that seems to be happening more and more often where Washington simply can't make a decision. And that uncertainty creates significant problems for cities.

BLOCK: What are the big issues that you see looming for Mesa, assuming these cuts do go through?

SMITH: In Mesa, our biggest concern is not directly with the city government, but we're very, very heavily dependent upon defense industry. We have several military installations in Arizona and in Mesa, we have a very large Boeing helicopter - we are proud to be the home of the Apache attack helicopter.

Most of those companies have been able to plan for this. They've actually started planning for uncertainly and they won't be directly impacted, but we have that second tier of suppliers who have been hurting for quite a number of months because as Boeing and the Honeywells and the General Dynamics have scaled back and they've become more conservative - not knowing what would happen - they, of course, have either cancelled contracts or not let any new contracts.

So it's that second and third tier that's really hitting our citizenry because those people are now out of work. They don't have contracts because they can't get commitments. That has greater impact on our community than what might directly happen to the city of Mesa government during sequestration.

BLOCK: And as you look forward to impending cuts and the ways those might ripple out through your community, where do you see it hitting the most?

SMITH: It's going to hit primarily in - especially if there's grant programs or things that are on the edge, you know, things like aids and Head Start and, you know, people that depend upon short term type obligations. The other thing is, once again, with our citizenry and not low-paying jobs, but technicians and engineers who are now dependent upon these long term contracts who have now been cut back.

When you have people that are making 85,000, $90,000 out of work, that's the kind of ripple effect that creates huge problems for a community. So we have both on the front edge of our services that we provide where maybe some grants in certain programs be cut back and then, once again, the overall effect on the economy from professionals that depend upon dealing with the government on an ongoing basis. That's been interrupted.

BLOCK: So overall, if you project forward and think about what the impact of sequestration will be on Mesa, how gloomy a picture is it or how much - how easily do you think you'll be able to ride that out?

SMITH: It could be relatively unnoticed and it could be literally in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.

BLOCK: You just don't know.

SMITH: We just don't know. I think that's the challenge. I know what the administration has said. They put out their scorecard about cuts that would happen. I don't know that anybody believes that will happen in its entirety and that's simply because what Congress and the administration have done time after time again, they've found some way to soften the blow or to kick it.

I think sequestration probably will happen, to some extent or more. We just don't know to the level of how that will happen, how much it will happen and what that impact will be. And that's the frustration.

BLOCK: Mayor Smith, what are you hearing from your constituents in Mesa? How concerned do they seem to be about this? How do they view what's going on here in Washington?

SMITH: That's the interesting thing. It's a collective yawn. I think what people see is dysfunction at its best. I think what people worry about is the fact that, are we up to the challenge? And they've gotten so tired of the debate - crisis after crisis, debate after debate. You know, we as a nation survived the Great Depression. The question is, can we survive the great dysfunction?

BLOCK: Mayor Smith, thanks so much.

SMITH: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Scott Smith is the mayor of Mesa, Arizona. He's also vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.