Mayor Marion Barry's harsh proposals for averting a financial crisis suggests that the mayor believes in taking his toughest political gambles early enough in his term to give voters time to forget.
The steep tax increases and sharp service and job reductions proposed by Barry this week may be unpopular now. But the next election for mayor is still more than 2 1/2 years away.
By themselves, these proposals may not be enough to drive Barry from office. But they come on the heels of other events which collectively suggest -- on this the mayor's 44th birthday -- that there is tough sledding ahead for the remainder of his first term.
Barry can aruge, with some conviction, that he did not create the city's current financial problems. For him, the question is simple: How do you solve them?
For years, the District government has been living beyond its means, and now, having exhausted most of the gimmicks used previously, it is getting its due. "The chickens are coming home to roost," says Barry. Many municipal money watchers agree.
There are similar situations in cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia, where financial woes have led to service reductions and layoffs, similar to the 1,223 job reductions and $26.1 million program cuts proposed this week by Barry.
But this is perhaps the first time since home rule that so sharp a combination of service cuts and tax increases has been asked at one time. It might suggest that a new creed developing in city hall is, "Ask not what your government can do for you, but what you can do for your government."
At the same time that the mayor is asking many of those in the city who are hardest pressed -- youth, the elderly, those living in substandard homes and city workers destined to lose their jobs -- to do with less, he is beefing up the District's revenue collection operations to make sure that every penny owed is brought in. r
The cumulative increase in contributions to the government is staggering, and, along with some of the more unpopular service cuts, are enough to suggest a strange legacy for Barry.
If proposals he has already made are combined with others that have taken effect, Barry could rightfully be labeled:
The mayor who closed health and recreation centers.
The mayor who raised bus fares.
The mayor who raised property and other taxes.
The mayor who slashed $10 million from the school budget.
The mayor who laid off 550 workers and got rid of 673 more through attrition.
At times, Barry's rhetoric suggests that he is only playing politics with the budget -- pushing for either a higher federal payment, more budget autonomy or a fixed formula for the federal payment, three things Congress has vigorously denied in the past.
Barry says, for example, that if Congress reduces his request for funds to pay fire, police and teacher pensions, he will stop payments when this year's allocation runs out and tell disappointed pensioners that Congress is to blame.
If skeptical members of the City Council are not willing to buy his $24.5 million tax increase package, he said earlier this week, let them come up with their own -- and become the council that raised taxes - or watch while he gets rid of 5,000 city workers instead of 1,223.
But there are also enough skeletons in the city's financial closet to suggest that the need to stop spending is real. The fact of the matter, said several persons familiar with the situation, is that the government is constantly scrambling to pay its bills on time, and is likely to be doing so for some time to come.
Moreover, private firms selected by Congress have already laid the groundwork for the first full audit of the city's finances at the end of the current fiscal year. Marion Barry has no intention of being known as:
The mayor who led the city into financial disgrace.
It's a high stakes proposition for Barry. Money woes are not the only wrinkle in his brow.
He is also:
The mayor whose former wife, along with two associates, is being investigated by a federal grand jury for allegedly stealing and misappropriating $600,000 from the U.S. government and low income tenants at the Clifton Terrace apartments.
The mayor who was caught secretively taking a break on his home mortgage at a time when many city homeowners were unable to get mortgages even at record high rates.
The mayor whose first year in office was accompanied by an 11 percent increase in city crime.
Barry has his hands full over the next 2 1/2 years. Already, the many potential problems have made some of Barry's would-be rivals anxious. Among them is former City Council Chairman Sterling Tucker, who lost to Barry in the 1978 primary.
It is still early in Barry's term. There is time for the former college chemistry student to become an alchemist and according to Webster's definition of the term, "change baser metals into gold and to discover the elixir of perpetual youth."
After all, in 1975 and 1976, while then a member of the City Council, Barry was:
The man who shepherded through bulky tax increase packages and higher user fees for city residents.
By 1978, most people had apparently forgotten that, or else they didn't mind. Barry ran for mayor as "Mr. Tax Relief." And won.