Mayors Debate Brave New World Of More Power But Less Money

Many of the 200 city chiefs gathered in Miami welcome the end of unfunded mandates

REPUBLICAN majority leader Bob Dole hails it as the "new federalism."

Norm Coleman, the Democratic mayor of St. Paul, Minn., bluntly describes it as the "new reality."

They are both describing the moves by Washington to transfer more decisionmaking power but fewer dollars from the federal level to local governments.

The first major step in that direction was taken this spring, when President Clinton signed into law the elimination of unfunded mandates for future legislation.

In Miami, the buzz among the 200 city chiefs at the 63rd Annual US Conference of Mayors, which concludes today, is how city governments should adapt to this fast-moving sea change.

Many municipal executives welcome the shift - with some provisos.

Two-term East Orange, N.J., Mayor Cardell Cooper, a Democrat, supports the block-grant crusade in Congress, but only if money is appropriated directly to the cities.

"If money is appropriated to the states - for them in turn to dole out to the cities - cities are doomed to fail," Mr. Cooper says. "The state will create another bureaucracy, so that by the time the money does filter down to the cities and the programs it was earmarked for, the dollars are very few."

Mayor Coleman says mayors from both parties are slowly learning that they now have to embrace this new reality.

"I can't be looking at Washington or to the state to solve all my problems," Coleman says. "Sure, we have major concerns, but I think we're all understanding that we've got to deal with what we've got and make the best use of it. Because it's not going to be raining from the federal skies in the future."

But the shift is coincident with federal budget cuts. And that could make solving urban problems even tougher. To remove a bureaucratic layer, Congress proposes transferring authority for several programs to state governments, while cutting funding for them up to 20 percent.

Less money for the states, in turn, means less money for cities.

Victor Ashe, the Republican mayor of Knoxville, Tenn., and the president of the US Conference of Mayors concedes there is a trade-off. To him, it's worth it.

"Mayors from small towns and big cities want the discretion over how to spend federal money," Mr. Ashe says.

"With direct block grants to the cities, it empowers us to make those financial decisions instead of Washington."

But for many big-city mayors struggling with chronically high levels of poverty and homelessness, the transfer is a mixed blessing.

The welfare reforms now being debated in Congress, for example, would have a tremendous impact on cities, which may have to take on many of the responsibilities of the federal government.

Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, a Democrat, says this aspect of the "new federalism" concerns him. "If you don't have good job-training programs, and you don't have jobs, and people are taken off welfare," warns Mr. Rice, "we'll be faced with those people in our cities, on our streets, and having to manage those things."

Mayor Cooper voices similar concerns. Governors have often worked closely with Congress. Now, he says, it's important for mayors to take an active role in the reform debate in Washington. "Mayors must have direct input into policies at the federal level that will ultimately affect us."

Senator Bob Dole drew an ovation when he promised the mayors that he would reexamine existing governmental requirements of cities that aren't accompanied by federal money.

"We've only gone part way. We're only taking care of mandates that are going to happen in the future. We need to go back and take a lot of mandates that are imposed on you right now from legislation before we passed unfunded mandates."

He listed the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act as examples of well-intended federal mandates that need Washington money to make them work.

Miami Mayor Steve Clark says the city and Dade County, Fla., would benefit greatly if there were fewer unfunded mandates.

"Those unfunded federal mandates cost us probably $10 million a year," Mr. Clark says. "I don't think there should be a mandate if they don't have the money to pay for it in Washington."

The debate over which branch of government should pay for certain services and programs is not lost on the Clinton administration. US Attorney General Janet Reno told the mayors that this new approach was followed when the recently passed crime bill was being put together.

"We recognize and I know full-well from my go-rounds with the federal bureaucracy that you wanted and needed less bureaucracy," Ms. Reno says. "That's why we cut red-tape dramatically for the various cop programs."

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