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Cities Worse For Wear From Recession

February 15, 1992

Undated (AP) _ Trees in New Orleans look ragged since the city quit regular trimming.

Garbage piled up last month in parts of Buffalo, N.Y., after New Year’s Day pickup was canceled, making a stinky start to 1992.

A blue-ribbon panel found Los Angeles police overworked, but the city can’t afford to hire new officers and it lets vacancies stay empty.

And in Seattle, some libraries remain dark longer and some parks close earlier.

Around the country, it’s another year, another shortage of dollars for basic services. Urban America continues to suffer corrosion from a lack of money.

No region is spared. They only differ in severity.

″Nobody’s rolling in clover,″ said Randy Arndt, spokesman for the National League of Cities in Washington, D.C., whose recent survey of municipal officials reflected a discouraging outlook.

So city officials punch another notch in the belt and yank it. Hiring freezes, jobs lost to attrition, locks on pay and dipping into cash reserves are common. Streamlining for better efficiency and putting fewer workers to more tasks, setting priorities by triage.

Ingenuity and humor also help.

When Lynch, Ky., fell $40,000 into the red last year, the mayor’s wife opened a thrift shop in City Hall and organized bingo games to raise money for the town of 1,100 people.

Zev Yaroslavsky, chairman of the Los Angeles City Council’s budget and finance committee, says his staffers are amending the 23rd Psalm: ″Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of the deficit ...″

The sprawling City of Angels, with 3.5 million residents, faces a projected $200 million deficit for fiscal 1993 on a budget likely to nudge $4 billion.

″A lot of cities have this problem,″ Yaroslavsky said, ″but we have it really bad.″

Many forces roll into an avalanche of trouble for cities trying to make ends meet with shrinking revenues: declining federal and state funds, laws that cap taxes and require balanced budgets, and federal and state mandates.

Some say it’s time to seize the day, and the peace dividend.

Like people in the former Soviet bloc, U.S. civic leaders see the chance to take back money and power that shifted elsewhere since World War II. They’re rallying new coalitions of politicians, academics, community and business leaders.

The idea sounded novel the way El Paso City Councilman Jesus Terrazas Jr. put it at the inaugural meeting of the American Cities Initiative.

″I’ve been stressing participatory democracy for years,″ he said at the recent gathering in Philadelphia.

The Initiative, which is drafting a plan for more federal spending on cities and the people in them, is among half a dozen several such efforts. Among others, the National Urban League offers its Marshall Plan for America. U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., is pushing his five-year $40 billion Local Partnership Act. Nine urban universities are hammering out public policies outlined at last year’s New York summit of mayors.

Meanwhile, pessimism is widespread.

A National League of Cities survey of municipal officials released last month found 51 percent reporting overall economic conditions in their cities worsening in 1991 compared with 36 percent the year before.

These woes result in part from the shifting human landscape. For the first time in U.S. history, slightly more than half the population lives in a metropolitan area of at least 1 million people.

Older, larger and tired cities in particular divide into alien countries of inner city and outer city, bad and good, poor and rich, unsafe and safe, said Professor Mark Alan Hughes, who teaches urban affairs at Princeton University.

″The question is: how sustainable is the outer city without the inner city?″ he said. ″The pessimistic answer is we don’t need the inner city anymore.″

Exceptions stand out.

Denver is building a new library, adding parks and expanding its jail. The city learned hard lessons during the energy bust of the mid-1980s. It increased its sales and commuter taxes. Services were reorganized to make them more economical.

Dallas-Fort Worth counts its riches in more manufacturing jobs, more people and more home building. In 1991, the city tax base was 191 percent of its 1980 level.

Little Rock, Ark., needs to decide how to spend $1.9 million in underestimated revenues.

″We’re sure not cutting expenses,″ said John Pryor, city finance director and treasurer.

If such tidings sound rare right now, even city dwellers where the landscape is bleak see opportunity.

″If you’ve got buses that don’t run, a lack of street protection, garbage that doesn’t get picked up, street lights that don’t go on when they should, you can’t keep looking around for other people to look at these problems.″ said Frank Smith, president of the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce. ″You have to go back to the idea that you’re a participant.″

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