The District government, which deferred payment on $45.3 million in obligations this year because of a severe cash shortage, expects to defer payment on twice that amount in the coming year, according to city officials.
The increase in unpaid bills stems from the city's growing reliance on deficit spending to meet a large payroll, cover the mounting costs of incarcerating prisoners and providing human service programs, and a drop in expected tax revenue because of the flagging regional economy.
In short, the city is trying to juggle its checkbook to meet only its most essential obligations. But without a combination of new revenue and deep budget cuts soon, experts say, the city will run out of money sometime next year.
"We're going bankrupt," said D.C. Council member William Lightfoot (I-At Large). "We're operating the government on borrowed money. I don't know any words to describe how bad the situation is."
The city this year missed its July quarterly payment to the Metro system and will have trouble making a payment of more than $29 million that is due tomorrow. It also has been late in making a $55 million payment to the D.C. retirement board, the pension fund for city employees.
Throughout the fiscal year that ends today, the city deferred a total of $45.3 million worth of large payments to the coming year, according to a financial statement distributed last week to potential investors in city bonds.
The city is projecting that it will have to defer nearly twice that amount -- or $88.6 million -- from fiscal 1991 to fiscal 1992 to survive the next 12 months, the statement indicated. This will be necessary for the city to meet its payroll and pay off its creditors.
Both city officials and outside experts note that as bad as the situation is, the District's financial posture is not as bad as that of Philadelphia or other cities that have faced insolvency.
Philadelphia is experiencing its fourth consecutive budget deficit, as well as a crisis of confidence in its political leadership. The city recently was forced to cancel plans to borrow $375 million when a major bank refused to guarantee the loans.
Banks and other lenders still profess confidence in the District's ability to handle its financial problems, and while there is latent unease over the city's fiscal posture, there are no outward signs that they would soon take the kind of adverse action that might precipitate a bankruptcy here.
Last week, the city had no problem selling $300 million of short-term notes -- a type of borrowing similar to what Philadelphia wanted to do. However, the Japanese bank that guaranteed the notes imposed more onerous conditions than in the past.
Part of the reason for the lenders' confidence is the city's financial management track record. Only once in the past decade, in 1988, has the District posted a deficit -- the relatively small amount of $14 million out of an overall budget of more than $3 billion.
But the storm clouds are gathering. The region's economy has moved perilously close to recession, causing a severe decline in projected tax revenue in the District, Maryland and Virginia. The District expects a $93 million deficit for the fiscal year just ended, growing to more than $160 million in fiscal 1991.
Along with the delays in making payments to Metro and the pension fund, the city has delayed paying about $14 million owed to the Federal Bureau of Prisons for taking care of D.C. inmates, officials said.
Robert Pohlman, deputy mayor for finance, said the city will likely have to delay more payments such as Metro obligations this year, as well as forgoing $39 million in maintenance and repairs on the water and sewer system.
Although the city's cash problems will ease for a few months because of last week's note sale and the city's $430 million federal payment, which is expected to come soon, the city treasury is expected to be running low once again by January or February. Many, including Mayor Marion Barry, have questioned whether the city will be able to meet its $150 million monthly payroll next year.
On Friday, the administration took the unusual step of ordering cutbacks in agency expenditures even before the beginning of the new fiscal year.
The administration plans to follow up with a revised budget proposal within a month. Although officials won't disclose their intentions, they said true deficit reduction is likely to require deep cuts in human service and other government programs.
This week, the House District of Columbia Committee is expected to approve a long-awaited bill that would authorize a $60 million increase in the federal payment, which would help the city's financial posture considerably.
But even if Congress agrees to appropriate the funds, which is uncertain given the federal budget deficit, the city would still be facing a variety of politically painful choices of its own.
More than 75 percent of the city's budget goes to public education, law enforcement and public safety, and human service programs -- including expensive entitlement programs such as Medicaid.
Some council members say the city might have to cancel $31 million worth of planned raises for city employees pending before the council. "I don't think that at this point we need to be discussing pay increases until we set priorities about how many should be paid," said council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee.
Wilson, the Democratic nominee for council chairman, last week criticized Barry's proposed pay increases as a political ploy, coming when the city can scarcely afford them. Barry is running for an at-large seat on the council.
There are other political minefields as well. Pohlman said the city has to consider new revenue sources, such as a tax on public utilities or higher water and sewer rates, in order to generate badly needed cash.
However, many of the council members running for reelection this year ran on anti-tax platforms, as did Sharon Pratt Dixon, the Democratic nominee for mayor, and Republican mayoral nominee Maurice T. Turner Jr.
Yet another problem is the 48,000-member city work force, which many politicians have described as bloated and inefficient. Dixon has pledged to fire 2,000 mid- and upper-level managers, and Turner has pledged to reduce the size of bureaucracy through attrition.
Experts say it will take several years to reduce the work force, given the city's civil service protections, meaning job cuts will have little impact on the budget deficit for 1991.