Mayor Marion Barry's public campaign to explain his budget proposals and garner citizen support for his efforts to get more money from Congress to balance the city's budget has drawn varied and not altogether enthusiastic responses.
The campaign, which began with a citizen's meeting April 8, involves an 81-member citizens' budget advisory committee formed by Barry to hold a series of ward-level public meetings to discuss the budget. But since the committee members themselves are generally not familiar with details of the budget, the District goverment is sending along budget experts to recite Barry's interpretation of the city's fiscal ills and his prescription for curing them.
The message from the budget teams, which is virtually unchanged from meeting to meeting, minimizes the role of city officials in creating the crisis. Instead, Congress is blamed for impeding the city's ability to balance its budget by refusing to grant a full $300 million federal payment and by withholding full fiscal autonomy.
Lloyd Smith of the city's budget office, who is coordinating the meetings, told about 25 Ward 7 residents who attended a meeting at the Sixth District Police Headquarters Monday night, "We're talking about the bottom line, about getting some citizen support to go up to (Capitol) Hill. I'm not supposed to say that, but that's the bottom line."
Response to the call for public support has been varied. Lorraine Whitlock, an active Ward 7 Barry supporter, said citizens "need to start telephoning, writing letters and letting the Congress know that we need that money."
Barry has asked Congress for a $61.8 million supplemental federal payment to help make up this year's deficit and a full $300 million federal payment for 1981. Neither is likely since Congress has a history of slashing D.C. federal payment requests.
Ethel Onley, president of the Central Northeast Civic Association, said her group was less concerned about the role of Congress than about Barry's plans to lay off 546 city workers.
"Let the layoffs be equitable and not just apply to people at the lowest rung when all the while people are being brought in on the top rung at high salaries," Onley said.
When Smith replied that regulations virtually force the government to lay off the employes with the least amount of experience, Onley was skeptical.
"That sounds real pretty," she said. "That sounds real pat."
Community worker Tyrone Atkins said, "We understand the process and the figures. But this government gets hit with penalties because it doesn't pay its bills on time. This government doesn't put its contracts out for enough competitive bidding. This government has $25 million out on the street (in delinquent taxes) that it can't collect."
"We have to be fiscally responsible. I have not seen that in this government," Atkins added.
Electronics worker Joseph Thompson, also a Ward 7 resident, said he was concerned about losing services like recreation centers and street repair to the budget squeeze. Barry has already closed 10 recreation centers. He originally planned to close 21, but retreated under public pressure.
"I think we've made it very clear that we want services rendered for the money we pay," Thompson told Smith. "It's absurd for me to have to tell you this."
Smith asked the group if it would be willing, for example, to have trash collection cut back to once a week. To his admitted surprise, the Ward 7 residents responded they would accept the cut, but only if it would help avoid layoffs and other service cuts and only if the cutback were applied to the entire city.
Barry sparked a controversy last year when he proposed cutting back trash service in some areas east of the Ancostia River, but not for the rest of the city.
The lively Ward 7 session stood in contrast to others of the budget meetings, which have been poorly attended. A Ward 1 meeting two weeks ago at the 14th Street Project Area Committee building drew only three citizens in addition to the budget committee and representatives of the press.
Smith said his office is stepping up its efforts to publicize the meetings and hopes to draw more citizens. The meetings will continue through May 1.