New Orleans mayor has message for Republican convention. Host of GOP's '88 confab says cities need Washington's help
New Orleans — When the Republican National Convention comes to New Orleans next August, the party's presidential hopefuls and other national leaders might take a few pointers on deficit reduction from the city's mayor. Mayor Sidney Barthelemy inherited a $30 million deficit when he came to office in May 1986. By the end of the year - by doing ``what we had to do,'' the mayor says - the city wiped out the red ink. Some of the solutions were less than palatable: 1,100 city employees laid off, a temporary four-day workweek for others, underfunding of police and fire departments.
``We took our lumps and put our fiscal house in order,'' the mayor declared in his first state-of-the-city address in May, thereby accomplishing something, Mr. Barthelemy likes to say, that neither the federal government nor Louisiana seems able to do.
Yet in discussing his role as host next summer to the Republican presidential nominating convention, Barthelemy is quick to point out that there are many problems facing the nation's urban centers that they cannot solve on their own. The federal government must become a stronger partner, Barthelemy says, in helping cities address problems ranging from drugs and crime to soaring school dropout rates.
But the Democratic mayor, a native of New Orleans, says it is a message that neither major party has heeded too well in the past eight years.
``We lost revenue sharing,'' the mayor notes, which provided $12 million a year to New Orleans, ``not because of the Republicans, or simply that the President didn't want it. The Congress of both parties did away with that program as it has with other programs that were of help to cities.''
In an interview in his spacious City Hall office across the street from the Superdome, Barthelemy emphasizes that he does not expect the next president, Republican or Democrat, to come to the cities' rescue. What is needed, he says, is a stronger governmental partnership, and swifter federal response on issues that weigh heavily on cities but that require action at a national level.
``The drug scene is getting worse,'' the mayor says, ``but the cities, especially places like New Orleans, can't stop this stuff from coming in our borders. We need a greater [federal] effort to clean up this problem of drugs, and that in turn will help us clean up the crime we have in our cities.''
Barthelemy says similar equations apply with problems like substandard housing, illiteracy, and high dropout rates.
``The federal government shouldn't be responsible for our funding of education. But we need their support and expertise, especially in our poorest areas,'' he says.
Some form of aid to cities hit by economic calamities beyond the cities' control is one idea Barthelemy supports. Under such a program, Houston or New Orleans, whose economies went into a nose dive after the collapse of oil prices, or Detroit, which was hard hit by a falloff in domestic auto production, could seek temporary assistance, much as areas that have been hit by natural disasters.
But Barthelemy, a member of the board of directors of the US Conference of Mayors, says he finds little receptivity for such ideas on the federal level. ``Everything we say seems to fall on deaf ears.''
After 18 months in office, Barthelemy is keenly aware that few residents are in the mood for higher taxes, even if the alternative is decreased services. Several tax-increase proposals, including for police and fire coverage and city schools, have been defeated in the past two years.
Yet as he prepares his city for the national and international spotlight of thousands of Republican conventioners and 15,000 journalists, the mayor says he will use the convention to stress the need to elect a president who will inspire Americans to think beyond themselves.
``If you don't get a national leader who is going to speak to the noble things of man, and going to inspire his people to commit themselves and reach for the common goal,'' Barthelemy says, ``it's difficult to get the guy at the bottom to do that.''