HOW DID THE CITY come out of fiscal year 1981 after 1) all those mid-season howls about a potential $90 million deficit, 2) its failure to get permission to go the bond market and 3) the failed attempts to sell surplus property before Sept. 30? The answer appears to be that the city, surprisingly, did very well. The Barry administration is trumpeting a $7 million surplus for the past fiscal year despite its many setbacks, such as not being able to get about $10 million from the property sales. The District had anticipated that the money would come in during the last fiscal year, but it did not. That trouble came on top of the mid-year forecasts by the administration of large budget deficits.
But city officials say the alarms about another deficit, after last year's $105 million shortfall, were sufficient to get all overspending by city agencies under control. Despite doubtful glances, administration officials say that all agencies really did restrain spending enough to erase the deficit and keep the $7 million surplus. An exact accounting of how the city did in the past fiscal year could come as early as next month.
Where the city completely failed in the past fiscal year was in its attemptsr to get congressional approval for the sale of bonds to finance its $388 million long-term deficit. That debt still weighs on the city, and the sounds coming from Congress indicate the burden will not be removed any time soon if it is left up to Congress to grant permission for the sale of deficit-financing bonds. Without the ability to sell those bonds, and with no other plan for retiring the debt, the city remains in a poor posture for selling capital improvement bonds, for which it needs no further congressional approval. To get money for its roads, water mains and sewers, the District will have to continue to ask the Treasury for long-term loans at a slightly higher rate than prevails on the currently ailing municipal bond market.
Much of the reason the city did so well over the past fiscal year was an unanticipated rise in revenues, primarily from income and sales taxes. The latter reflected a rise in sales of department stores and small shops. The income tax rise is still under study, but it is thought to reflect inflation's impact on personal income, as well as the arrival of higher- income resident in the city.
These leaps in revenues are not expected to continue, in part because projections are now adjusted to include them. While the ballooning revenues won't be there, the city will be engaged in contract talks with all but one of its 27 unions. Those negotiations--with their potential for high wage settlements--could deflate the importance of increased revenues and unbalance the city budget very quickly.
Before beginning to focus on fiscal year 1982, however, the city still must decide on a strategy for handling its $388 million long-term deficit. Retiring part of that debt--$184 million--which the city regards as an inmmediate need, remains a problem that dwarfs all the others. If all goes well, and city officials are correct in their estimate of a $7 million surplus for the last year, then that money can be used to retire a small part of the long-term debt.
But what about the rest? Unless Congress suddenly shifts its thinking and moves to approve the bond sale, the debt will remain a drag on the city's finances. To resolve the problem without going to Congress, the city should immediately begin putting aside money with the goal of retiring the long-term debt in seven to ten years. If that scheme is faithfully followed, the city will be able to go to the bond market for money to finance capital projects with no need for congresssional approval. Considering the way Congress has been treating the city lately, any plan that avoids Congress starts out with a plus.