Nation's Freshmen Mayors Try New Budget Tacks

Constraints of the lean, mean '90s force experimentation at City Hall

A FRESHMAN class of American mayors faces its first budget tests as the chief executives try to push cities in new directions while dealing with the residues of recession.

The operative prefix in many urban areas in 1994: ``re'' - for reorganization and reinventing government.

Many mayors are trying to keep campaign promises of improving public safety, streamlining city services, and boosting local economies - even as they bump into political obstacles and books still bearing red numerals.

Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan (R) came out with his entry for fiscal 1995 that would dramatically reshuffle the city bureaucracy. The proposed $4.3 billion budget would expand some city services - including the Police Department - without raising taxes. Missing, though, were some of his campaign ideas, like widespread privatization of city services.

NYC budget

Next month, it will be the turn of another GOP head of a Democratic stronghold to produce his budget. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is already taking heat for some proposals on how to close a projected $2.3 billion gap.

Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer (D) is stressing revitalizing the inner city and healing relations with nearby communities, while mayors in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn., are talking regional cooperation in combating crime and are working jointly to spur economic development.

``It has been rough out there,'' notes Mike Pagano, a political scientist at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

The good news, he says, is that city revenues should improve as the nation wakes from a four-year economic slumber. The bad news is it will take time for the extra money to reach city treasuries from other government sources, if it does at all.

Still, the lean-mean 1990s have forced plenty of experimentation at City Hall. ``There is more happening on the innovation front than I've seen for a long time,'' says Jeff Esser, executive director of the Government Finance Officers of America.

Randy Arndt, a National League of Cities staffer, adds: ``Across the board, you are seeing leaders doing an awful lot of rethinking.''

That includes in federal-city relations.

This month, Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, a leader of the ``new mayor movement,'' was in Washington outlining ideas for a new urban agenda.

While many city chief executives would like to see much more aid coming from Washington, Mr. Rendell, who has drawn national attention for his willingness to pursue tough fiscal policies and take on constituencies in his own Democratic Party, was pitching another idea: Uncle Sam is too laden with a federal deficit to give massive amounts of federal largess, but the government can still spend money it is already spending to help cities.

Focus on urban areas

He suggests the government consider urban areas first when making decisions to locate federal facilities. He wants some federal purchasing to be directed toward inner-city ``empowerment zones'' and a restoration of certain tax incentives to spur urban investment.

``Consolidation'' is a buzz word among many mayors, and Mr. Riordan is no exception. His budget proposes the biggest reorganization in modern city history. He would cut the board overseeing public-works projects in favor of a single administrator and combine nine departments into two superagencies. Though this will save money and, he says, improve efficiency, they will draw ire from those who lose their portfolios.

Resistance to change

``Resistance to this type of change comes from those weaker constituencies who tend to lose their voice in the shuffle,'' says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the Claremont Graduate School.

Taking a step toward fulfilling a campaign pledge, Riordan proposes hiring 450 new cops this year. He would expand the repair of city streets and remove a surcharge on business taxes.

To help pay for these moves, he expects to raise $75 million from selling water-department assets. He would reduce pension contributions and keep a hiring freeze. The budget plan has gotten favorable notices from City Council members, but problems remain.

``The hard choices will come next year because many of his savings are one-shot deals,'' says one City Hall watcher.

Mr. Giuliani faces hard choices as he moves to trim $2.3 billion from a $33 billion budget. The former prosecutor who, like Riordan, promised to streamline city government, released a preliminary budget in February that proposed cutting $1 billion in spending and eliminating 15,000 jobs by mid-1995.

Giuliani has tried to soften the blow by offering severance packages to city employees instead of layoffs. But critics are finding plenty to carp about in the plan, the final version of which is due in two weeks.

``It's going to be very difficult, but we are trying to mitigate the impact of these staffing reductions,'' says Charles Brady, New York City's associate budget director.

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