Unfunded federal mandates put squeeze on local government Mount Airy mayor, Bartlett are among those worried

October 29, 1993|By Jenifer Mattos | Jenifer Mattos,Capital News Service

WASHINGTON -- In the town of Mount Airy, population 4,000, Mayor Gerald Johnson is worried. He said the town may not be able to afford the roughly $120,000 needed in 1993 to comply with federal regulations.

The figure amounts to about 12 percent of Mount Airy's budget.

Under unfunded "federal mandates," state and local governments like Mount Airy's must meet regulations for air quality and drinking water improvements, among others. The catch is, the local governments receive no money from Congress to make the changes.

Some local officials and members of Congress are becoming increasingly perturbed by the unfunded requirements.

"Our message is very simple. If you can't fund it, then don't you mandate it," said Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, a Frederick Republican who represents Carroll County and Western Maryland. He joined other members of a congressional caucus on unfunded mandates at a news conference Wednesday.

Members of the congressional caucus have introduced at least 12 bills in the House and Senate to combat unfunded mandates.

Several bills would require the federal government to pay all the costs of the requirements. Another calls for the Congressional Budget Office to analyze the mandates' impacts.

According to caucus statistics, unfunded mandates total about $430 billion annually, or about $4,000 a household.

Mr. Johnson said Congress has difficulty seeing the problems.

"Congress doesn't have to balance their budget, but we have to by law," Mr. Johnson said. "If Congress had to, it would probably be a whole different situation."

Mr. Bartlett said small towns are being asked to comply with the same standards as large cities.

"Even though the towns are out in the middle of cornfields, they must comply with the same regulations," he said.

The city of Hagerstown will have paid in 1993 more than $6 million to meet all the federal requirements, said Mike Brown, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. That money could have been used for police and fire services and road improvements, he said.

Baltimore will have paid nearly $84 million in 1993 to meet the requirements, the study said. Rockville will have paid at least $1 million, it said.

Several environmental and consumer groups defending the mandates said the federal regulations are crucial to maintaining environmental quality.

Don Gray, water program director for the Environmental Energy Study Institute, said the group wants to find a better way to protect the environment without hurting state and local governments.

"People in small towns deserve to have their health protected just as much as those in big cities," he said.

Others are also indicating they want to help the financially strapped municipalities.

President Clinton signed an executive order Tuesday requiring federal officials to discuss unfunded mandates with local governments before they are issued.

Environmental Protection Agency spokesman John Kasper said the agency will create a local government advisory committee and a small town task force to give them more flexibility in meeting standards.

"We don't want to impose on local governments a one-size-fits-all solution from Washington or a solution that they are not able to fund," Mr. Kasper said.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer recently asked cities and towns to create a list of mandates they think are overly burdensome or duplicated.

Mr. Johnson said if the federal mandates continue, his town might be faced with bankruptcy and would have to unincorporate.

"But this would just be passing the buck to the counties," he said with a laugh.

After living in Mount Airy for 32 years, Mr. Johnson doesn't want to see his town die.

"I hope what I heard today is not lip service," he said. "I hope they really want to fix the problems."

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