IN THE MONTHS we've all lived through the District's budget crisis, I've had a recurring nightmare: that one day I'd wake up and find that some really essential service like street lighting would be the next to go.
Were Dr. Freud to lend an analysis, he'd likely diagnose this as free-floating fiscal anxiety brought on by the underlying fear that nobody quite has a finger on the pulse.
That feeling seized me in full wakefulness as I grappled with the 1982 austerity budget released last week by Mayor Marion Barry, which he said reflected his "commitment to basic city services" while simultaneously balancing the budget and paying off part of the deficit.
In the blitz of closings and cutbacks, I've suffered a deep crisis of confidence. It is not the fear that our government lacks the ability to balance a budget and live within its means. It is rather that there seems lacking a grasp, an overview of the new abbreviated government and how it can be redirected to accomplish certain ends. This is not just balancing the books, but making certain the services are provided where they are needed. Granted austerity is necessary, but events of the past months have left me unsure if the new budget reflects austerity in the right place.
Part of the problem is the implication in the mayor's phrase, "maintaining basic city services." While it is clear that Barry's administration feels damming the flow of deficit spending takes precedence over campaign promises, nobody voted for Barry because he balanced books better than Walter Washington or Sterling Tucker. The deficit dictates new realities, but must it so overwhelm his administration that his pledge of redirecting priorities is forever lost?
What we have been watching these last months seemed more an exhibition of Barry's ability to orchestrate varying sets of conflicting demands, than the display of a firm set of priorities. The mayor may not be getting the kind of information from his departments to help him make good decisions in advance. The recreation chief says he will have to close pools -- and closes the wrong ones; the school superintendent says he must lay off teachers. Why do I feel they are going about these austerity cuts with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel?
Take the proposal for once-a-week trash collections by using "supercans" in the "outer ring" of the city with twice-a-week collection retained in the center city. This suggestion has been around for a long time and I'm glad the mayor finally is adopting it. But why is it being held off for a year even? With proper preparation, it could be put into effect earlier, one route at a time, and the money that is saved could be used for library books or for swimming pools. Meanwhile, the streets are getting increasingly dirty. Could manpower be moved from one place in the department to the other?
And what of the human concerns that are buried in the morass of the Department of Human Services?
Or even the schools. Are there administrative functions that were needed for the larger system that are not needed now by the smaller one? Is laying off teachers the only solution?
This may be unfair, but I don't get any sense that the government overall is being looked at in a sufficiently critical way. I don't get the sense that there is any mechanism for doing the kind of evaluation and assessment that is called for. I fear that a function of leadership is going begging.
It is easy to see how the major may initially have been overwhelmed at his discovery of so large a deficit, a problem that was compounded by a new computerized financial accounting system in which all of the bugs have still to be worked out, and with no backup system in place. Maybe the problem of resetting scaled-down priorities is partly a technical one -- he can't start until he knows where he is and the system can't yet supply him with the information.
We are, in effect, flying blind at the same time the City Council is asking for information so it can set priorities, and special interest groups are applying political pressure. Perhaps the mayor can now work with the council to rescue the 1982 budget. Politically, he is only half way into his administration and time remains to rescue it if he takes the overview he promised when he was elected.
What the mayor has to enunciate are his reset priorites that reflect the human needs of the people in this city. What he has to map is a clear direction. And that means restoring the budget that has caused my nightmares to its rightful place -- as a tool of government, not an end in itself.