City Administrator Elijah B. Rogers, ever the apolitical professional, seems skeptical about all those pronouncements that the city budget crisis is over -- even if they do come from his boss, Mayor Marion Barry.
"The budget crisis from a city management standpoint is still a crisis," Rogers opined the other day. "From a political standpoint, it doesn't have to be."
It used to be that the city's financial picture was clouded by episodes of runaway spending, serious cash shortages and uncertain revenue estimates.
But in recent days, as Barry warms to his anticipated 1982 reelection bid, the mayor has been upbeat, boasting that he has led the city into a rosy new era of balanced budgets and competent financial management.
No longer does the mayor dwell on the murkier side of city finances: the nagging $388-million accumulated debt, chronic cash shortages, a shaky and underfunded employe pension system that some experts say might collapse within a decade or two.
Barry and his aides harped on these disquieting themes early last year, while trying to prod Congress to approve a $184-million bonding bill that would have helped to erase the city's debt and avoid future cash shortages.
But with the bill hopelessly bogged down in the House and the election fast approaching, Barry has scrapped his forecasts of gloom and doom in favor of rhetoric more reassuring to voters.
Rogers is careful to distinguish between his boss's political slogans and his own, more professional, assessment. The mayor, he said, is "technically correct" in asserting that he has the budget under control, after a stormy, unsettling period of layoffs, program cutbacks and dire warnings that the city was running out of money.
"We've come from a $105 million deficit in (fiscal) 1980 to a surplus of $7 million in 1981," Rogers said. "That's an accomplishment we're proud of."
But until the city figures out a way to cope with its accumulated debt, smoothes out its cash flow and ends its dependence on the U.S. Treasury for long-term loans for capital projects, "then we still have problems," Rogers said.
Philip Dearborn, the mayor's former financial counselor, agrees that some of the city's toughest problems still persist.
"The scene is very quiet on the city front, but lying just beneath the surface are great concerns about what will happen in the next few years," explained Dearborn, vice president of the Greater Washington Research Center.
Barry is scheduled to release his proposals for next year's budget Monday, and the ensuing debate will likely indicate how many members of the City Council share Barry's view of an improved financial picture in City Hall.
The mayor has said he's opposed to raising tax rates this year, arguing that city residents already are the most heavily taxed people in the metropolitan area. At the same time, he's hinted that a tax increase might be necessary in 1983 -- after the election -- if President Reagan -- continues to reduce aid to cities.
City Council member John A. Wilson, chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee and an announced candidate for Barry's job, thinks the tax increases are inevitable.
"Technically, we may have a balanced budget, but in reality we don't," Wilson said a while ago. "I would assume that by 1982 to 1983 there are going to be tax increases and there are going to be major tax increases.... It's going to hurt."
Wilson, who is no slouch as a politician, seemed to be suggesting that Barry's election-time politiciking may be getting in the way of sound financial judgment. Maybe John Wilson has been talking to Elijah B. Rogers.
The first shot was fired this week in what could become a spirited political battle over the Ward 3 City Council seat held by Democrat Polly Shackleton.
Mark Plotkin, 34, a political consultant, announced Wednesday that he would seek the Democratic nomination for Shackleton's post. Plotkin, a newly elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner who was active in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's presidential candidacy in the 1980 D.C. primary, is chairman of a public-interest group called the First Amendment Foundation.
Shackleton hasn't said yet whether she intends to seek another term. Others who have been mentioned as possible contenders include Kay McGrath, an analyst in the city's planning department; Ruth Dixon, former president of the D.C. League of Women Voters; Joel Garner, a government researcher and civic activist who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat on the City Council in 1980; and Carol L. Schwartz, a Republican who didn't seek reelection last year as the Ward 3 representative on the school board.