THE leadership of American cities is getting an overhaul this fall.
Voters are choosing mayors in a third of the 60 largest cities in the country, and the changeover in city halls is destined to be the highest in decades.
One reason: A surprisingly high number of veteran mayors are standing down from office, at least partly because the job of running cities has grown more frustrating.
In half of the 20 largest cities holding elections, the current mayor is not running again. That does not count Boston, where the elected mayor has left office, or Los Angeles, which elected a new mayor last summer.
Social disorder and demoralization in many neighborhoods, a loss of traditional manufacturing jobs, and the disappearance of most federal aid has made budgets increasingly hard to balance and competing interests tough to bridge.
Campaigns from Atlanta to Minneapolis are centered on crime and public safety as city hall candidates bid against each other with promises to put more police officers on the streets.
Yet many veteran mayors say that adding police does little or nothing to control crime, a problem they tend to see as a seamless part of the social problems that have grown increasingly concentrated in American cities.
``I don't know anybody who has worked in police work very long who thinks more police will impact the crime problem,'' says Mayor Don Fraser (D) of Minneapolis, who is stepping down.
``Study after study shows there's very little relationship between crime and the number of police on the streets,'' says Mayor Thomas Ryan (D) of Rochester, N.Y., retiring from office after 20 years.
For most mayors, crime fits a bigger picture of slow-motion social and economic collapse in larger urban centers. ``The underlying problem is the steady growth in the number of families who don't have enough money,'' says Mayor Fraser. Poverty, in turn, is linked to what Fraser calls ``this astonishing phenomenon of the never-married parent.''
One result of this poverty is that cities themselves don't have enough money. Mayor James Scheibel (D) cut the St. Paul, Minn., budget seven times in four years - ``not what I envisioned when I ran for office in 1989,'' he notes.
Mayor Thomas Whalen (D) of Albany, N.Y., whittled away in the past three years the budget surplus he built up over the previous eight.
After 1994, he says, ``it's going to be extremely difficult to come up with a balanced budget. I don't think it can even be done with smoke and mirrors.''
Mayor Thomas Young (D) of Syracuse, N.Y., raised taxes an average of 5 percent a year for the past eight years, yet he still had to cut 20 percent of nonuniformed city employees.
For a variety of reasons, none of these mayors is running for reelection.
Cities ``can pay for themselves just fine unless they want to do something to help the 20 or 30 percent of the people in or near poverty,'' says Douglas Rae, a professor of public management at Yale University who was recently chief administrator to Mayor John Daniels (D) of New MHaven, Conn.
MAYOR Daniels is the first black mayor of New Haven, but he is not running for reelection after a first term of painful choices and unpopular layoffs. The dashed expectations of the black community were a special twist in New Haven, says Dr. Rae. When Mr. Daniels won election, he says, ``there had been a lot of `our turn' talk.''
But New Haven, like most cities these days, had few benefits to dole out to any group. For one thing, the federal government has cut aid to cities as much as 75 percent in the past decade, according to Don Borut, executive director of the National League of Cities.
The social problems of metropolitan areas are growing inside city limits while the affluent tax base is increasingly out of reach in surrounding suburbs. Mayor Ryan of Rochester notes that his city includes 4 percent of the land area in its county, yet contains all the halfway houses and most of the public housing.
The current period of frustration for city leadership may prove to be a transition that forces new approaches to making cities work. New mayors, from Ed Rendell (D) in Philadelphia to Richard Riordan in Los Angeles to Michael White (D) in Cleveland to Bret Schundler (R) in Jersey City, N.J., are attracting some attention for bringing fresh pragmatism to urban challenges.
One key, according to Mayor Young of Syracuse, who is stepping down because of a two-term limit: the city's middle- and upper-middle-class residents are ``fragile assets that need to be nurtured and guarded.''
``They're mobile,'' he warns.