When Mayor Barry proposed his skeletal 1981 city budget, some City Council members said the reductions were insensitive to the needs of the city's poor and needy.
Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) immediately vowed to fight his decision to close the only city health clinic in her ward at 1325 Upshur St. NW. Betty Ann Kane (D-At large) criticized the proposed $10 million school budget cut for being based on a "simplistic" formula. "Strategically ill-advised," council Chairman Arrington Dixon said of Barry's decision to abandon the city's two-year-old push for a $317 million federal payment.
Then quietly last week, just two months later, the council approved the budget, adding a mere $6.1 million and launching few new initiatives.
The budget as approved would close three health clinics, including the one in Jarvis' ward. It would reduce spending for the District's school system by $6 million. And it would ask a federal payment of no more than $300 million. Little would be included to improve malfunctioning, outdated city eforts in such areas as tuberculosis control.
Don't jump to conclusions, warns council member David A. Clarke, a one-time member of the District branch of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This doesn't mean the activist-dominated council has forgotten its roots.
The real problem, he contends, is that the District's legislature has little control over the city's annual spending package, the meat and potatoes of public policy.
That well-paid and well-staffed council has only 50 days to review a $1.5 billion budget, the explanation goes. When it does add new programs supported by new taxes, Congress cuts out the programs and takes back the taxes through a reduction in the federal payment.
And the District government cannot, in true liberal fashion, collect more money from the biggest industry in town for badly needed social programs. The biggest industry here is the federal government, Clarke noted, and it is tax exempt.
The result, he said, is a feeling of frustration and powerlessness to provide social direction in the same way other governments do.
"Ninety percent of the weakness of the city is in the budget," Clarke conceded.
Helplessness is not a failsafe excuse here though because the council has the power to increase taxes. And increased taxes would pay for social programs and finance additional school spending.
But the budget council members approved noticeably does not require an increase in property taxes. That is an indication that most of the council's 13 members -- 12 of whom are homeowners -- share Barry's belief that property owners have reached the saturation point and will be driven out of the city if taxes go any higher.
Willie J. Hardy, (D-Ward 7), takes a pragmatic approach. "If you add more services, you're talking about more revenues. If you talk about more revenues, you have to raise taxes. Who's going to pay the taxes?" she asks. "I don't know about you, but I can't afford any more taxes on my property."
So the 1981 budget is adopted is good news for homeowners, and homeowners vote. Which means it's also good news for politicians, who need those votes to stay in office.
Of course, it might be bad news for the poor who depend on shrinking city services. But, Dixon said, "There has to be a recognition that we cannot fund all those programs."
That's cold, an interviewer suggested.
"The economy of the country and the economy of the city is cold," Dixon retorted.
Ironically, Barry himself defused the most controversial item in the budget by abandoning his proposal to cut trash collection from twice to once a week. Admittedly, he changed his mind in the face of heated opposition from community leaders and some council members.
Among the small ways the council made its imprint on the budget were: providing funds to pay for 25 nurses in the city's public school system, not an adequate number but more than before, and allocating funds to keep the Martin Luther King Library downtown open on Sunday afternoons.
Some funds were alloted for various proposals to help reduce infant mortality in the city, but there are no well-funded attacks on massive city problems like tuberculosis, poor performance in the schools, unemployment or housing.
Council member Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), chairman of the human resources committee, questioned whether more money was the answer. "A lot of these programs are not a question of more money. They just haven't been run properly," she said.
Pure old-fashioned politics had its place in some of the strident criticisms of Barry's budget proposals.
Jarvis, for instance, complained that closing the Upshur Street clinic would be a hardship on senior citizens and others, even though another city clinic is less than a mile away.
Whether it resulted from cooptation or, as Dixon suggested, simple cooperation, from sameness of philosophy or from frustration, the council's action drew smiles from some of Barry's advisers. "They didn't change hardly anything," one aide said. "It's a victory for the mayor. It shows he was right."