Local taxes across the United States could reach record levels if the new Gramm-Rudman law results in severe cuts in federal aid to cities. That's the warning from New Orleans Mayor Ernest N. Morial, president of the US Conference of Mayors, as Congress returns to work in a tightfisted mood here in Washington.
Mayor Morial, interviewed by the Monitor, said that if Congress and President Reagan follow Gramm-Rudman to the letter and make deep slashes in local aid, there will be two major effects.
First, he said, ``It would precipitate a rapid decay and decline in the cities. It would sort of put the engine in reverse on the progress that's being made toward economic development.'' It would particularly hamper efforts by American cities to rebuild the nation's infrastructure -- roads, sewers, public housing, and other major capital structures -- he said. And it would slow efforts to find employment for minority youth. [Interview with urban expert, Page 5]
Second, Mr. Morial said, Congress would be telling the cities of America: ``You have to raise taxes to the highest level they've ever been.''
Morial and about 200 other US mayors are here this week for their annual midwinter meeting. As soon as they hit town, many of them made a beeline for Capitol Hill to begin pleading their case.
The mayors argue that the cities have already done a lot of belt-tightening under President Reagan. Federal aid to cities and states has been cut by 24 percent during the past few years. In some cases, the cuts have apparently been even larger.
Mayor Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco told House members that aid to her city has been reduced in recent years from about $400 million to less than $200 million.
The partnership that was begun under the Great Society between the cities and the federal government ``now is in the process of ultimate destruction,'' Mayor Feinstein told the House Budget Committee.
Kansas City Mayor Richard Berkley, chairman of the advisory board of the US Conference of Mayors, asked House members why Congress cannot find $4 billion for general revenue sharing to the cities out of a total $1 trillion federal budget.
Mayor Berkley said that if revenue sharing is killed, cities will have grim choices: much higher taxes, or curtailment of services. Without more taxes, cities would be forced nationwide to lay off ``18,000 police officers, 18,000 teachers, 20,000 human-services workers, and 26,000 street-maintenance workers,'' Berkeley said.
He concluded: ``The most likely result, if revenue sharing is eliminated, is a combination of tax increases and service cuts.''
A nationwide survey by the Conference of Mayors found that most cities would first trim human services and health programs if faced with a budget squeeze. About 60 percent also said they would slow down capital projects like roads, sewers, and public housing.
Although the mayors were plumping for any help they could get, they realize that under Gramm-Rudman, Uncle Scrooge has replaced Uncle Sam in Washington for the time being.
Thus, Mayor Feinstein, speaking for many of the mayors, had suggestions to ease the impact of reduced aid.
Cutbacks in general revenue could be softened, she said, by reducing the aid in stages -- perhaps cutting back by 25 percent each year for four years.
Washington could also help by reducing the number of federal mandates that require cities to do certain things, she said. Many of the federal dollars given to cities are used to meet US requirements for sewers, transportation, and other projects.
City buses, for example, must be equipped under federal mandates with $20,000 devices to lift wheelchairs. San Francisco has found that these devices are ``not used and not cost effective,'' said the mayor, but the city is required to have them anyway. Said Feinstein:
``If you are going to cut the dollars, cut or abolish the mandates as well.''
Many mayors expressed concern that there is no ready replacement for federal aid. They note that cities are not independent entities but operate under strictures laid down by state legislatures and state constitutions. There are limits on their taxing ability.
Cities originally appealed to Washington for help in the 1960s and '70s when they were ``blowing up,'' in Feinstein's words, because of racial unrest. Legislatures at the time were often dominated by rural counties with little sympathy for urban problems. Mayors latched onto Washington as a last resort. Today, notes Mayor Morial, many state legislatures are dominated by a suburban-rural power structure; it can be as hard to get help from state capitals today as it was 20 or 30 years ago.