US mayors hit the road in effort to battle cuts in urban programs

President Reagan, armed with his fiscal 1986 budget, has turned an old adage on its ear to show that he can fight City Hall. Now City Halls across the nation are closing ranks to oppose the President's proposals to cut urban programs. Last week, the United States Conference of Mayors packed up its arguments against the budget cuts and took its case on the road. Leaders of the organization kicked off a six-city tour in Chicago to publicize what they call ``Draconian'' cuts in most urban programs.

In Boston, conference president Ernest (Dutch) Morial of New Orleans repeated that theme, saying ``this budget would cut or eliminate nearly every federal investment that benefits cities today.''

Mayor Morial and his entourage were in Atlanta Monday, were in San Francisco today, and expect to travel to Houston and New York next week.

Although the high-profile, carefully orchestrated press conferences are intended to rally public support, mayors are also encouraged to work with their local congressional representatives to restore some cuts.

So far, however, the response from Congress has not been wholly sympathetic to the mayors' complaints.

Newly elected US Rep. Chester G. Atkins (D) of Massachusetts, in public meetings last week with city officials in his district, spoke out against a favorite program of mayors -- general revenue sharing. Mr. Atkins said the $4.6 billion program Reagan has targeted for elimination is inefficient because it gives money to every community, regardless of need.

``It's foolishness for the federal government to continue general revenue sharing when it doesn't have any revenue to share,'' says Linda Hartke, an aide to Representative Atkins. ``There's a consensus in Congress that we've got to do something about the federal deficit.''

But mayors defend general revenue sharing, saying it is usually spent on essential city services such as police protection, garbage pickup, and health care.

Of the $18.5 million Boston received this year from revenue sharing, every penny was spent to provide police foot patrols in the neighborhoods, city officials say.

Even those in Congress who see merit in the mayors' complaints, like Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, concede that cities will probably lose some federal funds. But they say it's unlikely all the President's cuts in urban programs will be approved.

John Gunther, executive director of the US Conference of Mayors, says cities have already done their part to balance the federal budget. In the years since fiscal year 1981, the flow of federal money to cities has been stemmed by 60 percent, he says.

``This [latest round of cuts] almost wipes us out,'' Mr. Gunther says.

Mayors, in early meetings with their congressional delegates, are trying to dispel a number of ``misconceptions,'' Gunther says.

Foremost, he says, is the belief that cities and states have huge budget surpluses at a time when the federal budget deficit is approaching $200 billion. In fact, only eight states have large surpluses, and cities are required by law to have balanced budgets, he says.

``Municipal bond rating agencies say cities should have a 5 percent surplus at the end of each fiscal year,'' he explains. Consequently, cities will slash their spending -- by closing schools early, by cutting hours for libraries, by abolishing recreation programs -- to make ends meet, Gunther says.

In addition to urging its members to lobby congressmen, the US Conference of Mayors will study the President's defense budget. The study is the mayors' effort to make constructive recommendations to rein in the deficit, says spokesman Mike Brown.

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