IN an urban America of a thousand deficits and growing social problems, mayors are calling for cities to become a national priority in the 1990s even as they search for new ways to meet challenges on their own. To many, this includes trying to pry more money from federal and state governments to help deal with everything from rising health-care costs to homelessness.
To others, it means not holding out a ``tin cup'' to Uncle Sam but trying to get Washington to stop foisting programs on local governments it cannot pay for itself.
No matter what the philosophical differences of those gathering here this week for the US Conference of Mayors meeting, though, there is one common theme emerging from hallways and banquet rooms: the need to put America's cities - its ``great engines'' of commerce and culture - higher on the national agenda.
``Cities are in a real crisis,'' says Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson (D). ``The federal government has disinvested in us. We're on the backburner.''
Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn (D) decrees urban America at a ``crossroads.'' He urges that the same kind of spirit and resources put into the Persian Gulf war be focused on the inner city.
To Mayor Wilson Goode (D) of Philadelphia, the answer to urban woes may lie in forging a ``new partnership'' between state and local governments.
``These are very difficult times for cities,'' says Sue Myrick, the Republican mayor of Charlotte, N.C. ``We have got to have a national awareness of domestic needs.''
Cities at a crossroads
The mayors meeting here through Wednesday come together at what many believe is a defining moment for cities. Many are facing their toughest financial times in a half century. By one estimate, nearly three-quarters of the country's more than 5,000 cities are facing a financing gap in their current fiscal year.
Recession is partly to blame. So is the exodus of affluent residents to the suburbs in some large cities. Then there is that old bugaboo Democrats like to talk about: the lack of federal, and partly because of this, state aid.
A Conference of Mayors study earlier this year showed that while cities drew 17.7 percent of their budgets from federal sources in 1980, that figure dropped to 6.4 percent by 1990.
Despite the budget constraints, the demands on local governments continue to rise - to fight crime, shelter the homeless, fix roads, care for the indigent.
A growing area of concern is coping with the AIDS crisis. A survey of 26 major US cities released at the conference showed that the disease is overwhelming urban health-care systems
Seventy-five percent of the cities surveyed reported staff shortages and inadequate facilities to handle victims. Their AIDS caseloads have risen from 25,000 four years ago to 94,000 today.
To help deal with the problem, a Mayors Conference task force on AIDS issued a variety of recommendations - including giving local governments the right to choose to distribute clean needles to intravenous drug users and making condoms available in high schools. As much as anything, though, the group called for more federal money and leadership.
``The fight against AIDS is looking for a national commander and chief,'' says San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos (D), chairman of the task force.
Wish list for Washington
In other areas, mayors are looking for more help from Washington as well. An urban economic committee urged Congress to enact ``anti-recession'' legislation that includes $300 million for a summer-jobs program and $4.6 billion in ``targeted assistance'' to communities most impacted by the downturn.
Another part of the thrust: Creation of an ``American Initiatives Corporation,'' funded with $2 billion, to help encourage small business to set up in urban areas.
Mayors of some of the nation's biggest cities are renewing their plea to see the 1990 Census corrected to make up for what they consider big undercounts - which could affect the distribution of millions of dollars in federal aid.
On the emotional issue of military base closings, there is a push to see that the Pentagon pays for any environmental cleanup that occurs at installations that shut down. Another idea would be for the Pentagon to turn over the bases to communities for $1 instead of ``fair market'' value.
Not all issues involve dollars. Mayors are exchanging innovative ideas on how to curb urban violence and promote racial harmony in cities that are becoming more ethnically diverse.
Still, to ensure the survival of the nation's cities, many mayors believe more federal attention and benevolence is needed to help confront a multitude of economic and social ills.
``Cities are the engines which drive this country,'' says Mayor David Dinkins (D) of New York.
Maureen O'Connor, mayor of the host city of San Diego, says that, while creative solutions are being pursued at the local level, if the federal government can spend billions bailing out the savings and loan industry, it can afford more aid for cities.
Others, though, say the emphasis should be on less government - less in the form of Washington imposing requirements it cannot pay for.
``We have to defend ourselves against mandates,'' says Robert Isaac, the Republican mayor of Colorado Springs, Colo., and current president of the US Conference of Mayors.
The current state of federalism, he says, is for Congress to make the rules and local governments to ``collect the money and pay for them.''