MAYOR MARION BARRY had some tough words for almost everyone in a public meeting Saturday night about next year's budget. Besides criticizing the White House for not helping enough in this year's District budget battles on Capitol Hill, Mr. Barry 1) said that the city's work force will have to be trimmed, 2) specifically attacked a "lack of competence" in parts of the Department of Human Resources, 3) called the board of education "a little chicken" for failing to close under-used schools and 4) warned local residents to expect a tax increase next year.
Behind all these comments is one inescapable fact: The city is heading into a new, probably long and no doubt stormy season of financial strains. Inflation is pushing costs up more and more. Metro is going to require larger commitments. The city faces the prospect of sizable outlays to remedy problems, such as the decay of many public-housing projects, that have been neglected for years. Meanwhile, Congress -- especially the House -- seems determined to slash the deferal payment. The resulting forecasts are not cheery; city administrator Elijah B. Rogers estimated in an op-ed piece Saturday that, to keep its budget in balance, the city may well have to reduce spending or increase revenues by "over a quarter billion dollars during the next five years."
To his credit, Mayor Barry seems determined to tackle the problem without waiting for millennial remedies, such as a large, guaranteed federal payment or congressional approval of a payroll tax. His comments about pruning the city work force are an encouraging sign. There is a certain amount of croweating in this; city officials have spent years defending the size of the city payroll against congressional sniping, and it must not be entirely comfortable for any local politician to acknowledge, as Mr. Barry did on Saturday, that the Hill critics have been right. But the mayor is on a necessary course. The trick now will be to make specific changes soon, to keep uncertainty and general resentment in the ranks from building up.
Trimming the payroll, while essential, is just one element in "doing more with less," which seems to have become the Barry administration's management theme. In his article Saturday, Mr. Rogers outlined an ambitious agenda that amounts to trying to do everything more efficiently. In some cases, this may require more people. For instance, by tripling its force of AFDC caseworkers since January, the city has vastly expanded its ability to review cases, cut overpayments and thus save money -- perhaps $2 million per year. That sort of improvement can have extra dividends by showing local taxpayers and Congress that they are getting their money's worth and making them more willing to pay somehwat more.