US Mayors' plea: Don't balance budget at our expense

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As the US economy slides deeper into recession, big-city mayors worry increasingly about the urban impact of federal attempts at recovery. In this presidential election year, when they might be expected to have considerable influence over the shape of urban policy, mayors also are feeling frustrated by their apparent lack of clout.

These are the underlying perceptions as the US Conference of Mayors opens its annual meeting here June 9.

Most Democratic mayors support the re-election of President Carter and expect him to win in November. They applaud him for allowing urban officials better access to the White House. But they also criticize his cutting back on certain key urban programs and warn that the political consequences could be serious.

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"President Carter would not carry New York today," said that city's mayor, Edward I. Koch. "It relates to a failure in dealing with some of our major urban problems."

While professing his staunch support for Mr. Carter, Major Koch also points out that the unemployment rate in New York City is 8.4 percent. That is well above the recently announced 7.8 percent national figure, which surprised White House economists June 6. Unemployment in other metropolitan areas also surpasses the national average, officials here note.

Democratic mayors do not openly fault President Carter for this, but they do express concern about his reaction to it.

"Our concern at this point is that the gains made in the past few years not be lost in the fever to balance the federal budget, fight inflation, and support a strong defense establishment," said Richard Hatcher, mayor of Gary, Ind., and incoming president of the US Conference of Mayors.

It appears, however, that city halls around the country will, indeed, feel a severe federally imposed belt-tightening in coming months. And this will come just as the effects of recession fall more heavily on urban areas.

General revenue-sharing will be cut by one-third, and this will mean a $1 billion loss to cities. Mayors point out that funding for this popular program has remained at the same level ($46.9 billion) since 1976 and therefore has dropped considerably in value because of inflation. Much of the state share of revenue-sharing (the portion to be eliminated) has been passed along to local governments for public education.

President Carter's original 1981 budget included $1 billion in "countercyclical assistance" to areas particularly hard hit by recession. But the President later withdrew his support for such a program. Congress still is working on its budget report, but it now looks as if the number of CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Trainig Act) jobs will be reduced to 350.000, about half the 1978 level.

President Carter's latest budget proposal eliminates assistance to state and local governments for criminal justice programs.It also cuts $125 million for the urban parks program, an important part of the President's national urban policy. Federal aid for waste-water treatment and urban development action grants also are expected to be frozen, if not cut, in the coming budget year.

The US Conference of Majors recently surveyed 100 cities (including most of the largest ones) and found that 79 "are either experiencing budgetary difficulties or are anticipating serious problems in the next fiscal year." Workers have been laid off or hiring frozen in 16 of these; 12 cities have raised taxes or are planning to do so; 16 have made major service reductions; and 5 have raised service fees.

Cutting the state portion of federal revenue-sharing, it was reported, will have a direct impact on 49 of the 100 cities surveyed. The move will cost New Orleans $7 million; Nashville, Tenn., $4 million; Flint, Mich., $2.6 million; and New York, $75 million to $100 million.

Here in the Northwest, Oregon public schools will lose $13 million because of the cut in aid from Washington.

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