If nothing else, President Barack Obama's visit to Mesa in February has garnered key contacts for the city within the federal administration. For Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, that meant scoring a conference call with Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday morning.
Smith joined a handful of mayors and county commissioners from across the country to give feedback on how federal stimulus dollars benefit and pose challenges for communities when it comes down to the brass tacks.
Smith described the hourlong conference call as a "fine-print kind of a discussion." For instance, the participants highlighted dilemmas cities face over accepting stimulus dollars for some viable programs due to long-term financial obligations.
The Mesa City Council recently had just such a discussion on whether to give the Mesa Police Department approval to apply for stimulus money to hire entry-level police officers. The caveat there was the federal money only pays for the officers' salaries the first three years. Cities would have to pay for equipment and training andpick up the tab for the officers' salaries and benefits in the fourth year. Then, at the end of year four, the city would have to decide whether to retain those officers.
"I spoke to the vice president about the dilemma about the (Community Oriented Policing Services) program and the choices to make, whether to commit to long-term obligations, and that such programs create a catch-22 for us," Smith said.
Biden told Smith the idea behind that program was for the federal government to pay for it for three years, with hopes that by the fourth year the economy would turn around, enabling cities to take on the cost.
"In a perfect world, I would agree with that, but we're not sure three years would be enough to get us back to that level, to commit to that obligation," Smith said.
The Mesa mayor said he also talked about the challenge local governments face in dealing with immigration law, how the city's resources are being spent in enforcing federal laws, which pulls resources from day-to-day police work.
"I expressed frustration that we've been forced to pick up enforcement of federal law without commensurate financial assistance and that's made our communities less safe," Smith said.
Biden agreed that more needs to be done, Smith said, especially in Arizona, with the border state feeling the brunt of the effects of immigration, drugs and immigration-related violence.
Others on the call included the mayors of Tulsa, Okla.; Milwaukee; and Kansas City, Mo.
Obama visited Mesa's Dobson High School earlier this year to pitch his housing stimulus plan, which the administration says is designed to assist average homeowners facing foreclosure or who can no longer afford their mortgages. The president plans another visit to Arizona State University in May to deliver a commencement speech.