New D.C. mayor faces host of serious problems

January 02, 1991|By Arch Parsons | Arch Parsons,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Sharon Pratt Dixon goes to her inauguration today as the new mayor of Washington acknowledging that, as her chief adviser on the city's finances put it, she has "inherited a mess" from her predecessor, Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr.

Mrs. Dixon, a 46-year-old former public utility executive, will be sworn in as mayor at 11:30 a.m. today at the District Building, Washington's city hall, where Mr. Barry has reigned for 12 years. He now faces a six-month jail sentence for cocaine possession.

Mrs. Dixon faces a host of problems as she prepares to take on the job of governing the nation's capital: a devastating rate of murders in the city, a bloated municipal civil service, one of the worst infant mortality rates in the nation, a low-grade public school system and over-crowded jails, to name a few.

But the "mess" that her financial management adviser, Franklin D. Raines, referred to was the city's soaring budget deficit.

Estimates of the District of Columbia's deficit this year had been put at $200 million by the Barry administration and by a commission on the city's budget and financial priorities.

The estimates jumped nearly 50 percent last week when Mr. Raines, chairman of Mrs. Dixon's transition committee on the city's financial management, told her in a memorandum that the deficit would more likely be $275 million to $300 million.

The jump, he wrote, was the result of "additional unbudgeted spending" by the Barry administration and "a further deterioration of tax revenues due to the recession."

"In five or six months the District will run out of cash and be unable to meet payrolls or pay its bills unless drastic actions are taken immediately," said Mr. Raines, a veteran adviser to other cities with financial problems, including Chicago and Cleveland.

"In my 11 years of working with governments in financial difficulty, I do not believe I have ever encountered a situation as potentially disastrous as this one," he wrote in the memo, which was published in the Washington Post.

The memo to Mrs. Dixon concluded: "Let me simply say you have inherited a mess."

Asked at a news conference Friday to comment on Mr. Raines' conclusion, the mayor-elect responded: "Well, he couldn't have put it more artfully. I think that says it all."

Mr. Barry will leave office tomorrow awaiting the outcome of an appeal of his sentence, continuing his attempt to recover from alcoholism and drug addiction, separated from his wife, Effi, who moved out of their house, and facing unemployment.

"I believe that in time, my personal situation will evaporate from people's minds and they will finally get around to the good things I did here," he said in a recent interview with the Associated Press. "But that's what people will remember for a while, and you can't stop that."

Meanwhile, aides to Mrs. Dixon say that her inaugural address will further a point of view she expressed shortly after her election: "I think this is a great opportunity to turn the city around," she said then. "There are problems -- serious ones -- but I've never been one to turn away from an opportunity to make things better."

When asked at the news conference what could be done about the budget deficit, she replied: "Well, you do a lot and you do it quickly."

Thus, as one of her first acts as mayor, Mrs. Dixon plans to ask Congress to increase the federal government's annual payment to the District by at least $200 million. If Congress agrees and acts quickly, the increase would provide the city with enough money to wipe out two-thirds or more of the current deficit.

Aides to Mrs. Dixon reported that she also has asked them to prepare possible cuts in the city's $3.8 billion budget that would total about $250 million. Mr. Raines said the cuts would show Congress that the city is ready to do its share to wipe out the deficit.

The federal payment represents compensation to Washington for revenue the city loses because it is the nation's capital. The presence here of the federal government means, for example, that the District loses taxes on property occupied by U.S. government departments and agencies.

For the past five years, while Washington's budget has soared, Congress, disenchanted with the Barry regime, has allowed the federal payment to stagnate at $435 million a year.

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