Washington's middle class, largely untouched by Mayor Marion Barry's planned social service reductions and promised no large tax increases, could still feel the pinch of Barry's 1984 budget proposal through a variety of nickel-and-dime fees and charges.
Parents would be affected by Barry's proposal to have students pay full fares--65 cents during peak hours--rather than the current 20 cents to ride buses or the subway to school. Homeowners probably will end up paying higher water and sewer fees, and might have to pay indirectly for street lighting. It would cost motorists more to buy a car, pay a traffic fine or have a "Denver boot" removed.
None of these charges alone would constitute an enormous burden. But taken together, they add up to a considerable increase in out-of-pocket spending by District residents.
"The middle-class will feel the impact in money going out, while the poor will feel it in less services," said Matthew Watson, former D.C. auditor and now a lawyer and advocate for the Washington Council of Agencies. All told, an average family of four might pay about $500 more a year for services under the mayor's budget proposal, Watson said.
User fees have become an increasingly popular method of generating revenue by local governments throughout the Washington area (as well as in other parts of the country) particularly to help avert politically unpopular property tax increases.
Barry promised not to increase property taxes this year, though he has indicated he may have to reconsider that position, so user fees became one alternative for raising revenues. He empaneled a special committee to review the city's 1,100 user fees in 1980, and the panel soon found that millions of dollars a year could be found by raising many of them.
These added costs are part of a major theme in the mayor's budget this year: the users of services should pay for them when they can. Even formerly free day-care services, preventive health care services, drug and alcoholism treatment, and long-term emergency shelter--all designed to benefit mainly lower-income families--will be subject to new fees based on ability to pay.
The D.C. school bus fare plan may die under citizen attack, since parents have become increasingly organized and vocal in recent years. A lobbying group, Parents United for Full School Funding, estimates the proposal would cost more than $150 a year per child.
A spokeswoman for the school system said the full-fare plan could jeopardize the District's policy of open enrollment in any city school, and would discourage high school students from going to career centers, which require a third bus trip a day.
"It would be a tremendous hardship on borderline cases," said Janis Cromer, spokeswoman for the school system. Students "have to have that mobility to get to various different course offerings."
The chairman of the City Council's Education Committee put herself on record against the plan late last week. "I'm totally opposed to it," said council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At large). "Education to me is free, and it should include text books, lunches and transportation."
It was only in the 1981 school year that the bus fare for students was raised from 10 to 20 cents per ride, and that was done in stages to avoid hardship, said John Drayson, assistant director in the office of mass transit.
The mayor's proposal envisions charging full fares of 65 cents to between 40,000 and 50,000 public, private and parochial school children, while an estimated 54,000 to 64,000 would continue to be eligible for the subsidized rate, according to the mayor's proposed budget. The change would cut the cost of the program from $5.7 million to $3.4 million.
Other fees proposed in the mayor's budget include:
* A 35 percent increase in water and sewer fees starting Oct. 1, at an average cost of $42 a year per family, according to the mayor's figures.
* A transfer of funding for $12 million in street lighting from the city to individual utility customers through a rate increase. The change could cost homeowners between $11 and $60 a year, depending on how the cost was distributed among customers, said John Derrick, Pepco vice president for customer services.
* A proposed gross receipts tax on utilities, first proposed last year, that would add about $3.25 a month to an average customer's utility bills, according to People's Counsel Brian Lederer.
Lederer called this a "minuscule increase" compared with the kind of rate increases the utilities themselves ask for. His office would not consider the increase in the mayor's budget a problem because it "is not going to significantly affect the very real utility problems people in the District have," he said.
* A $5 increase in traffic fines, including the cost of removing a "Denver boot." That change can be accomplished adminstratively unless the City Council objects.
* A flat 6 percent excise tax on first-time car registrations, to replace a four-tiered tax of 4 to 7 percent. Annual car registration fees would go from $35 to $48 for most cars, but would decrease from $68 to $60 for large ones. The two proposals together, which Barry has submitted to the City Council, would raise $3 million a year, mainly from small-car owners.
* A proposal to bring in $500,000 from people who call in false burglar alarms. No specific plan has been made, but the city is looking at a program in Prince George's County that charges $30 per false alarm after the first three, said CindyLehmann of the department of finance and revenue. There were about 50,000 false alarms last year in the city, she said.
* Increases in unspecified recreation fees, which are supposed to pull in $250,000 more. This might include fees for using baseball diamonds for Little League games, for example, but not broad service charges such as for swimming pools, Lehmann said.
A new video-cassette rental program, to be started by the public Martin Luther King Library and probably supported with fees, according to a library spokesman.
Other jurisdictions surveyed also indicated plans to raise some fee.
In Alexandria, the City Council approved last month a new service charge of $96 a year for trash collection for businesses. "It's not a good way to raise money," said Mayor Charles E. Beatley, "but it's better than piling more cost on the homeowner."
In Fairfax County, students will be charged $60 for driver training, while other fees normally go up each year to compensate for inflation.
Montgomery County is looking at new health service and recreation fees in particular to offset its projected budget shortfall.
Prince George's County, which for some time has tried to recover the cost of programs with licenses, permits and fees, probably will keep closer tabs on costs and increase them more frequently as the budget problems get worse, said Roy Hart, executive liaison with the county delegation in Annapolis.
The county may increase its liquor license fees at stores and restaurants next year, and there may be an effort to increase court fees, he said. But Hart added that even in the toughest of times, some charges are off-limits--witness the perennial attempt to license cats as well as dogs.
"This always results in a very large and very funny hearing, and the people who made the proposal end up beating a hasty retreat," Hart said. "Only a newcomer to politics would suggest such a thing."
Washington Post staff writers Michel Marriott, Alison Muscatine, Sandra Sugawara and Eve Zibart contributed to this article.