D.C. government 1990:

Its clinics are so cash-starved that doctors sometimes run out of medicine or birth control pills, and nurses bring their own towels for patients.

Recreation centers now charge some children $25 for summer programs that used to be free.

Road crews routinely run out of money for permanent repairs, leaving even major arteries cratered by potholes and cuts made for utility lines.

Getting a construction permit is so cumbersome it has spawned an industry: people who help people get permits.

Whoever takes over Mayor Marion Barry's job on Jan. 2 will inherit a government misfiring on many fronts, struggling against growing fiscal trauma to give 628,000 residents the basic services at the heart of urban life, a three-month examination by The Washington Post has found.

Most of those residents, in turn, are unhappy with the return on the $2.4 billion in taxes they and businesses will invest in the city this fiscal year. More than half say D.C. government is inefficient, a Post poll has found, and two-thirds say it is corrupt and they don't trust it to do the right thing. And a sizable minority don't like how they are treated by city workers.

Yet, even while frowning on the sum total of D.C. government, residents applaud many of its parts. Comfortable majorities praise services that, in many other cities, are widely disparaged.

Whatever the perception of crime in the District, two-thirds of the city's residents feel well-served by the police department. When residents put out the garbage, most say, city crews are there to pick it up.

District firefighters are good ones, they feel. They like the libraries. They like programs for the elderly.

And there are positive overall trends: Whereas 52 percent rated the D.C. government inefficient this year, 61 percent did so in a Post poll conducted in May 1989. Whereas 65 percent said corruption was a big problem this year, 74 percent said so last year.

In an interview one evening after he had spent the day at his trial, Barry vigorously defended his administration, rating most of its services as "A-plus" and much improved during his nearly 12 years in office.

Barry said he was "surprised" the poll results were not worse, given that the city operates more than 3,000 programs in its unique role as a municipality that must offer services usually left to states, such as auto registration. The poll results also were surprising, he said, because the media constantly stress the city's failures.

With so much bad publicity, residents have come to "expect poor results, look for poor results and see poor results," Barry said, but in reality "we do as well or better than most jurisdictions in every category of basic services."

Asked during a discussion about city streets if residents here simply expect too much from city government, he said, "I think so. Absolutely. People in Washington -- compared to other cities -- are spoiled."Residents' Perceptions

For this series of articles, The Post polled 1,505 residents in May about their feelings toward D.C. government overall and 11 city services in particular. It also assembled a panel of 13 community leaders to assess the city.

More than just an examination of city services under Barry, the series looks at what conditions await the winner of the race this November to succeed him as the District's third mayor.

It does not, however, study in detail several key city services. These include the public school system, a huge agency in its own right that is the subject of extensive coverage, and public housing, which was the subject of a Post series last year.

Instead, the series focuses on agencies that touch more residents in more routine ways. Specifically, it looks at how well the city performs seven tasks: fixing the streets, issuing permits, inspecting housing, operating health clinics, maintaining recreation centers, helping the elderly and stocking libraries.

What emerges is a paradox.

A government of 48,752 workers -- one that is often characterized by some D.C. Council members as bloated -- includes numerous agencies that complain again and again that they do not have enough bodies. Officials at six of the seven agencies studied in depth said they have fewer employees than they did several years ago, largely because of budgetary shortfalls.

That has often meant longer waits for service. It has meant canceled programs, shortened hours and less completed work. On top of those problems, there are shortages of supplies. Among the highlights of The Post's findings:In some of the city's 22 clinics for the poor, staffing is so short that top administrators pitch in as doctors, and only one clinic remains open at night. The city concedes that the physical condition of the clinics is "not acceptable." Waiting times are sometimes so long at the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, where builders and homeowners go for permits, that an industry of surrogates has sprung up. Individuals make money by agreeing to stand in line for others and take care of all the paperwork. Further, some contractors no longer will do business in the District. Going to the agency, said builder Glen Geramifar, is "like walking into a no man's land." While officials say they should repave at least 40 of the city's 1,020 miles of aging streets each year, they have been averaging only 24 miles. They have been able to refurbish an average of only two of the 259 bridges each year, instead of the goal of six. And there is only enough money to pay for temporary pothole patches, which means the potholes eventually reappear. At the city's 102 recreation centers, a reduction from an average of four or five employees per center to one full-time employee and one who is there part time has meant, said one staff member, "I can't be sick. If I'm not here, there is no organized play." Centers have had to use community volunteers to mow lawns or pay for new equipment. Hit badly by budget cuts in the late 1970s and 1980s, the 26 public libraries have recovered much of the ground they lost, but still do not have enough money to stay open every night. They spend a smaller percentage of their money on books than most libraries. And circulation, though up, remains low for a big city. Programs for the elderly receive lavish funding and widespread praise, yet senior citizens must wait at least six months for an apartment in publicly funded housing. The Post poll found differences between the attitudes of blacks and whites toward city government, with whites being more critical. Sometimes, a majority of both races agreed on the assessment of a service, and there was merely a difference in the size of each majority. And sometimes, the two majorities disagreed outright. For example, 44 percent of blacks believe the city is inefficient, but 77 percent of whites do.

Barry won the right to sit in the mayor's fifth-floor office at the District Building in part because of his repeated allegations during the 1978 mayoral campaign that city services had been bungled under Mayor Walter Washington.

Now, as the 1990 campaign rushes toward the September primary, the issue is no longer whether the city is failing completely in its effort to deliver services. Judging by the results of the Post poll, it is not. Rather, the issue has become how to juggle resources and operate with glaring staffing shortages in key areas, tasks faced by almost all big cities.

At least in part, that challenge is the result of twin problems the city did not create, the murderous drug epidemic and the stagnating metropolitan economy.

As the number of dollars going for police, jails and health services has ballooned to cope with the impact of crack cocaine, those dollars have been sucked out of other agencies. Police and corrections, for example, consumed 13 percent of the city's fiscal 1981 budget. They consume nearly 16 percent now. In contrast, the Department of Public Works -- which collects trash and fixes streets, among other things -- has dropped from 6.5 percent to 3 percent.

Complicating the costs of the drug war, less revenue is tumbling into District coffers because of the end of the downtown real estate boom that had steadily boosted property tax receipts. For two years, city officials have said they were running out of money; that is now happening. By September, the city's cash balance is expected to fall to $25 million, a negligible amount compared with the District's $3.1 billion annual budget.

This looming fiscal crisis, said Barry, will force even more retrenchment than has already taken place.Service Without Smiles

For many residents, the existing budget cuts have come to mean frustration. When they try to get a new Supercan for the trash, the request languishes. When they pay their taxes, they get a notice saying they didn't.

Such problems come on top of long-standing grievances by many residents about how they are treated when they telephone or walk into a city office. Fifty-one percent in the Post poll said city workers don't try hard to help them, 36 percent said they weren't polite and 42 percent said they didn't know what they were doing.

"Let's put it this way," said Richard Settle, a Capitol Hill resident. "I called a department and spoke to about 22 people before I actually got a person I needed."

Asked during the Post survey to cite their best and worst experience with the city, they poured out tales of seemingly small incidents that clearly loom large in memory.

"Last summer, my wife contacted bulk trash," said David Crawford, 50, a consulting actuary who lives in Georgetown. "They told us to put a large refrigerator we had on the sidewalk and they would be by to pick it up . . . . It took them two whole months to remove it."

"You call people and play telephone tag and come back to the original person," said Gordon Anderson, 54, an electrical engineer and physicist from Capitol Hill.

"I was trying to handle a tax matter and they were not helpful at all," said Mary Hughes, 36, a Southeast resident who works in a law firm. "I owed money and paid it, and now they're still saying I owe money. They were supposed to call and they never called. I went to the office and sat for 45 minutes. When they finally took care of me, the guy was very rude."

Good service often seems to be a matter of chance. Many residents reported prompt, courteous responses when they called the city to have it pick up bulk trash, which is collected separately from garbage. Just as many, if not more, said their bulk-trash requests weren't answered for weeks or sometimes were never answered at all.

Likewise, attitudes toward the city's ambulance service were split, with 41 percent of residents approving and 36 percent disapproving. One reason for the large negative reaction might be ambulance response time, which averages 9 to 9 1/2 minutes, more than twice the national norm.

No services engendered more negative feelings, however, than the two that revolve around driving.

The District's effort to keep the streets in good repair was rated poor or not so good by 65 percent of the respondents, the highest negative rating of any of the 11 agencies examined by the poll. Just 4 percent called the streets program excellent.

And the performance of the Bureau of Motor Vehicle Services, where some residents waited as long as four hours last year for auto tags, won good marks from 39 percent of those polled -- and bad ones from 43 percent.Some See a Crisis

Such problems, coming as the city grapples with the deep-rooted issues of violence, drugs, poverty, poor housing and uninsured medical patients, prompted several Post panelists to lament the city's overall state.

"I just don't feel proud about the District of Columbia anymore, I just don't," Raymond Dickey, an advisory neighborhood commissioner from Ward 5, told the panel. "I go to places out of town. I kind of, you know, hide."

Ticking off potholes and drugs, schools and broken families, the Rev. Dean Lewis Moe of Grace Lutheran Church in Northwest said, "This city is facing a crisis. I know from our people."

Other panelists, though, strongly disagreed, praising the city as a place to live, particularly when compared with other cities.

"We need to be careful not to feed into the stereotypes of what's wrong with the city," Harry Robinson, dean of Howard University's school of architecture, told the panel. "I travel at least 10 days a month, cities all over this country. There is never a time when I'm not glad to come back here and see this city."

Evelyn Washington, an advisory neighborhood commissioner from Ward 6, said that excellent city services are available for the asking -- but that most residents don't know how to ask.

"And when you don't know the system, you can't demand or get the kind of things that you are really entitled to," Washington said. She added, "Anybody in their right mind that does not live in Washington, D.C., ought to be living here . . . . I'm saying this because I know this city works."

Another panelist, Roscoe Grant, president of Council 211 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 6,000 city workers, said the District has tried diligently to make sure city workers treat the public courteously.

"People are being written up every day for being discourteous," Grant said. "The District has laws on its books, okay, where an employee can be terminated . . . . So where it's being reported, it's being dealt with."Praise From the People

There were, moreover, positive signs in the poll. Residents like their police, with 65 percent rating their performance as good or excellent. They like, too, their fire department (74 percent) and their weekly garbage service (72 percent).

And they approve of the job being done by the libraries, health clinics, the recreation department and programs for the elderly, although in all four cases a majority said they either don't use the service very much or don't know anything about it.

As for city workers, Barry suggested in the interview that the poll found significant unhappiness because residents believe media reports about the quality of the work force. They now expect to be treated rudely by city workers and will often misinterpret their encounters with them, Barry said.

Actually, many residents interviewed for the poll cited acts of kindness by city workers, although sometimes they sounded surprised they had been treated well.

"When I was carrying my baby, they went out of their way to help me," said Regina Kun, 28, of Adams-Morgan, referring to her experience at a city health clinic. "They were very nice."

"Recently when I had a tax matter cleared up, the lady who helped me -- I don't remember her name -- down at the tax office was very helpful in instructing me," said John P. Holzwart, 35, a D.C. police officer who lives in Northwest, "and went out of her way to show me where my mistakes were and how to correct them, and took her time to make sure it was done properly."

"The best was when I called the mayor's command task force to complain about lack of heat in my building," said Renee Rochester, 28, who lives in upper Northwest. "The gentleman I spoke to was very cooperative and efficient and followed up my inquiry on the very next business day."

One resident was pleased by almost everything: "I've always had good experiences with extra trash collection, or getting rid of rats in the alley," said Charles Dorian, 64, a retired Coast Guard officer who lives in Tenleytown. "I've found them helpful on income tax problems. I've found the police to be very responsive on a burglary call. I really have no real problems. Except for the Motor Vehicle Department."

Still, some residents seemed to damn the city even as they praised it.

"When I had to call about having trees replaced in front of my house, I had a good response," said Joe Carpenter, 35, an artist and waiter who lives near Howard University. "They said it would take a year. And they came back in a year."

Staff writers Karlyn Barker, Thomas Bell, Stephen C. Fehr, Marcia Slacum Greene, Nancy Lewis, Richard Morin, Molly Sinclair, Sharon Warden and Linda Wheeler contributed to this report.