NEW YORK — SOME things never change. The nation's mayors have always wanted more help from Washington.
Yet Jerry Abramson of Louisville, Ky., the president of the United States Conference of Mayors, insists that the image of urban leaders holding tin cups is strictly passe. "Things are changing," he says.
Indeed. The message from the annual conference here is that Washington could really help cities by reducing federal regulation and adding no more unless Congress pays to implement it. "We don't mind the mandates, but give us the money to pay for them," explains Patrick McManus, mayor of Lynn, Mass.
Lynn has built water-treatment facilities and a purification plant. Yet the Environmental Protection Agency wants it to spend $200 million more to improve sewage treatment. "That will quadruple our water rates. We literally will have water and sewer rates higher than our property-tax rates," he says.
The mayors say unfunded mandates are "secret taxes." They plan a campaign to enlighten constituents and get relief from Capitol Hill. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R), a former Boise, Idaho, mayor, is sponsoring a bill to stop imposition of such mandates on states and cities.
But Mr. Abramson says the bill will not pass soon. He insists that unfunded federal mandates are a chief cause of the urban fiscal crisis. Many rules became law while Republicans were in the White House. "It's the kind of ... mentality that's going to have to be changed," he said.
Many mayors said they were disappointed that President Clinton's $16.3 billion economic-stimulus plan, with some $2.5 billion for cities, did not survive a GOP filibuster and pass Congress.
Via satellite, Mr. Clinton credited mayors with fighting for his jobs plan more than any other group. But he said the debt situation would keep him from doing as much as he would like.
That gap between hope and reality was underscored by others. Henry Cisneros, Housing and Urban Development secretary, said: "I can't promise massive new programs." Yet he announced a $1.2 billion housing plan that will use AFL-CIO pension funds.
Clinton also touched on the line between spending for consumption and investment. "While the federal government may be spending too much on regulation ... and on uncontrolled health-care costs, we aren't anywhere near where we need to be in targeted investments that create jobs and opportunities," he said.