NEW York Mayor David Dinkins, whose city is hosting this week's Democratic convention, is intent on pointing out the Big Apple's worms to visiting delegates. He calls on the Democratic Party to register the homelessness, the high crime, AIDS, the working poor - all of which eat away at the vitality of this city and cities across the nation.
Mayor Dinkins is joined by many of the country's visiting state and local leaders in his frustration with what they see as the lack of an urban agenda by past Republican administrations. They say the federal government has failed to meet its financial responsibility for schools, infrastructure, and law enforcement, and imposes impossible new mandates on over-burdened local governments. Staggering debt
Appropriately placed in a city hit hard by the lack of funds, a digital clock looms large over New York's bustling 42nd Street, computing the national debt. Rising by $13,000 per second, the United States debt will reach a staggering $4 trillion in less than two weeks.
Lee Jones, press secretary to Mayor Dinkins, echoes an often-heard Democratic comment about general economic problems in the US, and urban decay in particular. He says that, because of 12 years of Republican neglect, the poor got poorer, the rich got richer, and the federal government retreated from aiding the nation's cities.
"The proportion of our budget financed by federal dollars fell from 20 percent during the last Carter administration budget to the current 11 percent under Bush," Mr. Jones says.
High federal and state debts leave "counties as the governments of last resort," says Memphis, Tenn., Mayor William Morris. And because social services are not available to the growing number of working poor and unemployed in suburban and rural areas, cities are the receptacle for America's troubled. Mr. Morris says that instead of leading robust centers of economic growth, he and his colleagues face urban blight, an ever-increasing problem over which they have less and less control.
Charleston, S.C., Mayor Joseph Riley says that, due to spiraling budget deficits, federal investment in US cities has decreased by 70 percent during the Reagan and Bush administrations. "We don't want to be a nation where we need unrest and riots to spur us to action," he says, referring to riots in Los Angeles this past May, and White House and Congressional attention to urban aid. Traditional liberal Democrats have already registered their discontent with Gov. Bill Clinton's promise of middle-class tax
cuts and his decision that the middle class is the most important group of voters to woo in time for November's presidential election. Middle-class voters are largely suburban, and, given the limited budgetary resources, a focus on them could likely deflect from pressing urban concerns.
"We cannot endure further cuts in federal spending," laments John Stroger Jr., president of the Washington-based National Association of Counties, whose 3,045 membership governments preside over 98 percent of the country's population.
Mr. Stroger, commissioner of Cook County, Ill., says that the criminal justice system, which is the fastest-growing portion of county budgets, is both part and product of stretched urban budgets.
Morris agrees. "Regardlesss of how hard we work, we are incapable of producing economic structures to support the growing number of needy people," he says.
County governments, whose cities are teeming with migrants from nonurban areas that offer no services, cannot stem the increase in the number of impoverished residents, "much less break the cycle of poverty of those already living in projects," he says.
Does the new Democratic ticket offer better prospects for urban renewal? Dinkins recently led the mayors in an only partially successful charge before the Democratic Party's platform drafting committee to step up pledged federal spending for cities.
Mr. Jones says Dinkins's differences with the platform's prescriptions are over money: "It's a question of degree, not of commitment." Time span debated
The Democratic platform calls for $50 billion a year over the next three to four years. "We argue for $50 billion a year over the next 10 years," says Jones. "Of course we would like to see Clinton do more, but he is far, far, far better than anything Bush and Reagan have ever offered. The Republicans don't seem to see that our cities exist - that cities drive the economy. Every city needs help right now."
In its survey of more than 300 American cities, the US Conference of Mayors has listed thousands of public-works projects and jobs that have been put on hold due to recession and lack of federal funds.
Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, outgoing president of the US Conference of Mayors, leads a city rife with infrastructure problems. He predicts that "whoever emerges in this campaign" and reaches "the American people with the best economic game plan, the best job plan" and "wins the most votes of America's cities ... is going to become the next president of the United States." He says that the US Conference of Mayors has worked together with Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee ove r the past year, forging an urban agenda.
Says Mayor Flynn: "We monitor and mirror what is going on in our communitiies - and the number one issue is, who is going to help them get back to work and stabilize the economy?"