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Baldwin, Steil join bipartisan efforts to protect Janesville, other cities from losing metropolitan status

(NBC15)
Published: Mar. 22, 2021 at 5:08 PM CDT
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WASHINGTON (WMTV) - The City of Janesville is getting help from both sides of the aisle in Washington as city leaders hope to retain metropolitan status within the federal government.

Both Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin and Republican Rep. Bryan Steil joined bipartisan letters within their respective chambers urging the Office of Management and Budget to reconsider its plan to raise the threshold for Metropolitan Statistical Areas.

“Our city shouldn’t be punished by an arbitrary proposal, especially when we are working to attract jobs, new opportunities, and families to Janesville,” said Steil, who represents the city and its surrounding area. “I am urging the Office of Management and Budget to give Janesville a fair shot and reject this ill-advised recommendation.”

The federal agency has proposed increasing the minimum size for a metro from 50,000 to 100,000 residents for the region to be considered MSAs. Those areas that fall within that gap would be designated micropolises, raising fears in those communities of being left out of federal programs that are tied to statistical areas.

Janesville, Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, Sheboygan, and Wausau-Weston all stand to lose MSA status along with approximately 140 other cities, including Dubuque, Iowa, just across the Mississippi River.

“I’m concerned about these proposed changes and the impact they could have on small- and mid-sized counties, cities and towns,” Baldwin said. “That is why I have joined a bipartisan group of Senators asking the OMB to reconsider their proposed changes.”

Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag told NBC15 News last week that his city was taken by surprise by the plan and that is his first impression “is that the proposal is not good for Janesville.” City leaders are currently trying to determine the amount of impact it would have.

“Janesville is still dealing with the recovery from coronavirus and shutdowns, and now, federal bureaucrats want to make it even more difficult for Janesville to recover,” Steil added.

Senators also cited the pandemic as creating issues unforeseen when the OMB’s Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Standards and Review Committee published a report on the issue in August 2019, when coronavirus was still months away from U.S. shores, broaching a different concern: relocation.

The senators’ letter to OMB Acting Director Rob Fairweather they pointed out that nearly 16 million people moved during the pandemic. The letter argued that such a significant relocation, an approximately four percent increase over 2020, could leave the long-term population trends in the U.S. looking very different from where it is now.

“Given the anticipated negative impact of this proposed change and the inability to accurately track where Americans will choose to permanently settle following the coronavirus pandemic,” the 22 signatories urged Fairweather to reconsider.

In the House members’ letter, signed by over 50 congressmembers, they argued the agency’s decision to double the minimum population for MSAs was arbitrary and “devoid of any cogent, scientific, or statistically relevant standard.”

The letter contends the OMB report’s reasoning that because the population of the country has more than doubled since the 50,000-person threshold was set in 1950 that the latter should be doubled too was misguided. It argued the change would only drop the percentage of people living in MSAs from approximately 86 percent to 80 percent without consideration for if that decrease was statistically significant.

While House members acknowledged the committee is not supposed to take policy into account with its report and other federal agencies are not supposed to rely on the designation for implementing policy, they pointed out “it is well known that federal agencies have long ignored that advice.”

Their letter concluded by asserting that taxpayers should be able to trust that such decisions are data-driven and unforeseen consequences, such as the impact on federal funds, were considered. Instead, it accuses the increased threshold plan of being “arbitrary and capricious” and asks the OMB to reject it.

In addition to Baldwin and Steil, NBC15 News reached out to Sen. Ron Johnson asking about the proposed change. His office has not replied. This story will be updated if he responds.

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