Mayors Balk at Washington Telling Them How to Spend Their Money

By , Staff writer of the Christian Science Monitor

AS the nation's mayors, county executives, and governors make up their budgets this January, they are fuming over new spending forced on them by Uncle Sam.

* In Philadelphia, the city is mandated to spend $70 million in its next fiscal year to comply with federal statutes such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires cities receiving federal funding for its roads to include curb cuts for people in wheelchairs. If the city has to comply with all the statutes, ``it would be catastrophic,'' warns Mayor Edward Rendell.

* Louisville, Ky., expects to spend $14.5 million on federal mandates such as the Clean Water Act. ``If I could use this money for police officers, I could put a dent in the crime problem,'' says Mayor Jerry Abramson, who is also president of the United States Conference of Mayors.

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* It will cost the city of Greensboro, N.C., an additional $11 million this year to comply with the top 21 federal programs. At a press conference this fall, Mayor Vic Nussbaum Jr. held up a giant check for the programs and said, ``Unfortunately, this check is an annual check.''

According to a study of 314 cities by the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse and commissioned by the US Conference of Mayors, unfunded federal mandates cost the cities $6.5 billion in 1993 and will cost $54 billion during 1994-98. The study found that the cities were spending 11.7 percent of their budgets to meet required federal programs.

The cost is rising because of the increase in such federal mandates. In 1961, there were only two programs - today, there are 66, ranging from Clean Air and Water Acts to Voting Rights.

The mayors took their protest to Congress on Oct. 26. Since many of the congressmen started in local politics, they were receptive to the mayors' complaints. Rep. Gary Condit (D) of California founded a Congressional Caucus on Unfunded Mandates. It now has 90 members. For Representative Condit, the issue has come home to roost in his own district. Merced County, Calif., has had to shut down three of its four libraries because of a budget shortfall. The county is spending $2 million per year to meet federal mandates. ``It could use all or some of the money to save the libraries,'' an aide says.

Condit also introduced legislation that makes compliance with an unfunded federal mandate voluntary for states and localities until the federal government writes a check for the required programs. The bill would apply only to programs mandated after the date of enactment.

The Condit bill has 131 bipartisan cosponsors. But legislative aides say the bill is opposed by Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan and Rep. Henry Waxman (D) of California, who chair key committees that control the legislation.

Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R) of Idaho has introduced similar legislation with 53 cosponsors.

President Bill Clinton, a former governor, has shown some sympathy for the anti-mandate cause. In October, he signed an executive order telling federal agencies and departments not to promulgate new regulations unless the federal government pays for the implementation or can justify the new rules.

The order goes into effect at the end of January.

``It's a step in the right direction, but we are really aiming for Congress,'' says a spokesman for the US Conference of Mayors.

``We will have to get aggressive lobbying and educate our constituencies,'' Mr. Abramson says. ``If something is so important that it captures the imagination of the national legislature and it crosses jurisdictional lines, they must place behind it the national wealth of the country,'' he adds.

Some of the legislation at issue was popular when originally passed by Congress. For example, only 65 congressmen voted against the Disabilities Act when it passed in May of 1990. Some of the bills are also praised by the mayors as necessary legislation that should be paid for by someone else.

The dilemma for Congress is finding the funds to support these federal mandates. The tight federal budget eliminated federal revenue sharing, which used to provide a federal rainfall. Washington used to pay for 75 percent of the cost of installing sewers. Then, it dropped to 25 percent. Now, the feds only provide a low-interest loan fund.

The mayors are also upset with the ``one size fits all'' approach of federal regulators. For example, Columbus, Ohio, has had to test its water supply for pesticides used in growing pineapples. ``The last time the mayor checked, Columbus wasn't growing pineapples,'' Abramson says.

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