Mayors ask assurance that block grant funds will filter down to them

Will the Reagan administration's "new federalism" leave the nation's dollar-short cities out in the cold? Many of those gathered here for the annual meeting of the US Conference of Mayors say they are desperately concerned that it will.

They appear almost resigned to the idea of settling for a smaller piece of Washington's pie than in past years. Their biggiest concern now is the administration's proposal to send many of the remaining dollars originally meant for cities directly to the states in block grant packages.

Many mayors here say they are worried that state legislatures, often heavily rural and suburban in makeup, may have other priorities and opt not to pass along much of Washingtons's money.

The object of block grants is to give the receiving agency more discretion over spending, and President Reagan has proposed no "strings" to ensure that money will be passed to the cities.

While most mayors insist they want ot cooperate with the President, there is already every indication that this meeting could serve as Round 1 in a divisive fight with Washington over how much power the states should get.

The block grant proposal, which Mr. Reagan intended as a sweetener to balance concern over his budget cuts, hit stiff opposition in two critically important House and Senate committees last week. The House Education and Labor Committee rejected the concept completely, while the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee exempted from absorption into block grants several programs, including legal aid and such education programs as Title I aid for the disadvantaged and special aid for the handicapped. The added strong opposition of the US Conference of Mayors could strengthen that existing roadblock and lead to the development of a detour as a compromise.

The President has said that his ultimate "dream" is to return much of the power amassed at the federal level, including taxing authority, to the states. He also has said that he intends to eliminate all direct federal programs to cities by 1985, except those filtered through the state. These longer- range goals have triggered much of the strong reaction among many of the more than 200 mayors gathered here.

* "Scared to death" is Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson's description of how he and his colleagues feel. "The money just isn't there locally," he says.

* Gary, Ind., Mayor Richard Hatcher, president of the mayoral group, says Reagan's "states-first" concept amounts to a "cavalier abandonment" of the city. He says the concept of direct federal help to cities evolved because states failed to respond to urban needs in the first place.

* "We know from years past that states don't always do the right thing," agrees Mayor Lee Alexander of Syracuse, N. Y. Reagan's response to that criticism is that cities must trust the ability of states to make wise choices. But the Syracuse mayor said he suggested to the President in a meeting some days ago that the state block grant proposal be tried first on an experimental basis with a few states. According to Mayor Alexander, the President says that he will give the idea a thought.

As one indication that he at least hears the opposition even as he tries to sell his own program, Reagan has met with about 50 of the nation's mayors in the White House during the last few weeks.

Technically, the US Conference of Mayors will not vote until June17 on any of the policy resolutions before the group. But some proposals sympathetic to the Reagan administration's philosophy were shot down in committe sessions during the first day of the meeting. Peoria, Ill., Republican Mayor richard Carver's proposal to endorse the block-grant concept for states just as cities once endorsed it for themselves was one of the casualties.

The US Conference of Mayors tends to be more liberal than its broader-based National League of Cities counterpart. But its concern in getting more federal dollars for cities has led to an almost constant adversary relationship with the occupants of the White House.

What appears clear at this stage is that cities will push hard for some assurance of a pass-through requirement to block grants or some voice in the decisionmaking process.

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