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Barry's Chickens Prepare to Roost

By Eric Pianin and Tom Sherwood
Washington Post Staff Writers
January 19, 1983

One of the mysteries of the 1980 presidential campaign was how Ronald Reagan would manage to keep his pledge to cut taxes, increase defense spending and balance the federal budget all at the same time. Now the mystery has been solved: He can't.

Similarly, skeptics wondered last year how Mayor Marion Barry would fulfill his reelection campaign promise to balance the D.C. budget and grant 7 percent pay raises to city employees without increasing major taxes or laying off workers. It now appears that Barry may not be able to do it all, either.

The rosy election-year veneer that Barry applied to the city's financial picture last winter began to peel away last week with the release of the mayor's proposed $1.99 billion budget for fiscal 1984. For example:

  • There is almost no money for pay raises. The city will have to cut back programs, lose 540 full-time jobs through attrition and possibly eliminate thousands of temporary, jobs if it is to absorb the $70 million in pay increases already negotiated, for next year.
  • The General Public Assistance Program, which aids 5,500 people who are out of work because of disabilities, would be eliminated. Other social services such as Medicaid would be cut back as well, leaving a gaping hole in his social safety net.
  • Barry already is waffling on his pledge not to increase property taxes this year. He now says there might have to be an increase in the tax rate if assessments don't rise sufficiently. In addition, he has proposed a large package of fees and lesser taxes—totaling at least $26 million—that are necessary in order to balance his 1984 budget.
In contrast to the mayor's boasting a year ago about a surprising $68.3 million surplus, the city now is struggling to avert a projected $110 million deficit this year. And the city also lacks enough money to comply with a demand by Congress that it set aside $20 million to help retire its long-term debt.

The debate over the '84 budget is further muddled by Barry's refusal so far to say what the city is actually spending this year—information the council says it needs to make informed decisions about next year's spending.

The mayor blames most of the city's financial ills on what he calls the "disquieting new realties" of reduced federal aid and recessionary times.

But some of the mayor's longtime critics, including City Council member John A. Wilson (D-Ward 2), say it's more a case of Barry's chickens coming home to roost. Barry should have faced up to tax increases, layoffs and program cutbacks at least a year ago, they say.

"This year's budget is a lot more realistic than last year's budget," said Wilson, who is chairman of the council's Finance and Revenue Committee.

"It reflects the difficulty that we are in," he said. "The difficulty would not be so bad . . . if we had made more sound decisions in the last two fiscal years."

One of the "disquieting new realities" for organized labor has been the mayor's sudden but so far private souring on the sweetheart contracts he signed last year while wooing labor to his camp.

The public employee unions, which once bitterly denounced Barry, parted company with their private sector brothers and sisters last year to support the mayor over Democratic challenger Patricia Roberts Harris.

Some of Barry's labor supporters privately acknowledged during the campaign that they didn't really believe the mayor's upbeat assessment of the city's finances. But they were content to remain quiet because, as one organizer said, "He delivered for us."

But now labor leaders fear the worst—that the mayor will somehow try to renege on his agreement and get out of the contracts. Barry could appeal to their social consciences to try to get them to give up part of their pay raises, or threaten to make them look like greedy government workers if they don't.

"With this administration, I frankly would not put that beyond them," confided one top labor official last week. "We really do not want to put this city in a bind, but Marion has not dealt honestly and up front with the unions, and unions must force him to be honest and forthright."

As another labor official put it. "We won't let Barry pit us against the poor."

Barry indicated privately to some City Council members last week that he might try to persuade public employee unions to reopen contract talks to scale down the pay increases.

City Council Chairman David A. Clarke also wants to reopen contract talks, but he disagrees with Barry over timing—indicating a potential tug-of-war between the mayor and the council to control whatever money might be saved.

Clarke, who was elected chairman with virtually unanimous labor backing, wants to resume talks immediately, which would give the council some idea of how much money, if any, could be put back into social programs before Barry's lean 1984 budget is adopted.

The mayor, according to sources, wants to wait until after the budget is approved by the council. In that way, the sources say, he would be able to decide how any savings would be spent.

For now, the mayor is saying very little publicly about his true intentions, leaving the council, labor, social-service constituencies and taxpayers guessing as to the ultimate shape of his economic strategy.

© The Washington Post

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