Should Cities Buy Local?

Mayors from manufacturing communities urge cities to buy American-made products. But is that practical?
by | June 14, 2012

Should municipalities spend more money on products that are made in America?

Virg Bernero, the mayor of Lansing, Michigan, believes they should. He's among the public officials who have helped launch Mayors for America, an organization made up of mayors and other municipal leaders encouraging cities to adopt “Buy Local, Buy American First" purchasing protocol.

Cities have a lot of purchasing power, his group reasons, and if they make more of an effort to buy American-made products, it would help the battered manufacturing sector and cities that rely on it. His organization's slogan: "Mayors helping Other Mayors Promote Domestic Buying."

It's not a novel idea -- politicians and industry leaders have been urging the country to "buy American" for decades. For nearly 80 years the federal government has had a policy that requires the feds to have a preference for U.S.-made products in situations when it's possible (though there is room for exceptions), and the stimulus, which sent billions in aid to states and localities, also had buy American provisions attached.

Still, it's a point that has become all the more salient in the wake of the recession, and Midwestern mayors in cities that relied on manufacturing aren't above asking for a little help from their friends in other communities.

The manufacturing sector lost about 3.4 million jobs over the last decade, according to the latest federal figures.

"I believe that what made this country great was the great GDP," said Bernero at an event in Washington, D.C. this week. "I believe that we put the P in GDP (when) we made things here in America."

Lansing, a manufacturing center, suffered a surge in unemployment in the wake of the recession. The unemployment rate there peaked at 16.9 percent in the summer of 2009, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though that number has improved, the city's unemployment rate today is still 50 percent higher than it was a decade ago.

Bernero admitted that not all cities were going to be able to commit to buying all local, all the time. Cities across the country have different procurement policies, some of which are dictated by state law that require contracts to the lowest bidder, regardless of whether they are local.

“It’s not like we’re saying if your state dictates your policies you can’t sign the pledge,” Bernero said, “We want everyone to participate. Pledge to work within your state’s policy as much as you can, and then maybe consider trying to change that legislation.”

His organization's goal is to get other cities to sign on and provide a list of products and services from local businesses that other members of the group can utilize. “This is about what mayors can do when they leverage their tools. We’re in the trenches, we’re on the front lines. We know what happens when jobs are outsourced,” Bernero said.

The city of Lansing is allowed to spend up to 5 percent more on local purchases than the amount of the lowest bid they receive from outside the area. In Lansing’s case, businesses are only considered “local” if they are actually in the city limits. Mayors for America’s ultimate goal is for cities to have tiered systems where “local” can include the city, the county, the state, and the country as a whole.

Advocates for the policy say municipalities should come together to revitalize manufacturing, citing what they believe is an inadequate response from the federal government.

Leigh Ann Renzulli  |  Leigh Ann Renzulli

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