WASHINGTON -- Marion S. Barry Jr., barely into his fourth term as mayor of the District of Columbia, has given the Congress a choice: Bail the city out of its financial troubles or watch the nation's capital sink into bankruptcy.
But he also let it be known that even if the Congress comes across with the $267 million he says he needs to help defray a deficit of $722 million in his 1995 budget of $3.2 billion, it won't solve the city's long-term problems. Washington, he said, is designed to fail as a political entity and structural changes are needed to resolve the crisis.
Most neutral analysts agree that the district has problems most other cities do not have to face. They are embedded in the deal the district made with the federal government when it negotiated home rule two decades ago. Back then the district agreed to administer and pay for programs such as welfare, corrections, mental health and youth services, and others it can no longer afford to finance.
Mr. Barry has asked the federal government to take these programs back.
Another set of problems peculiar to the district flows from its curtailed power to tax: Half its real estate is occupied by non-taxpaying federal installations, foreign governments or nonprofit institutions like the Na
tional Geographic Society; many of its residents are military people or diplomats, and are excluded from the sales tax.
Also, since it is not within the jurisdiction of a state government, it gets none of the assistance state governments normally grant large cities within their borders. It does receive an annual federal subsidy from Congress -- $660 million this year -- but it has no representation there.
Washington also suffers from all the ills that afflict other older American cities. Its general tax base is shrinking as its more well-off residents, black and white, flee to the suburbs. Its school system fails by every standard measurement. The crime rate is soaring.
Mr. Barry has announced his determination to cooperate in the rescue of the city with which he has identified all his life. He has promised $314 million in cuts in city services and the work force. He will appear before Congress Feb. 22 to provide more details of his plan for retrenchment.
But he has not escaped criticism himself for the fiscal mess the district is in. Some distrust endures on Capitol Hill and elsewhere toward the flamboyant mayor, who served a sentence in federal prison on a misdemeanor cocaine conviction between his third and current terms. Many people, however, are willing to suspend judgment and wait to see how he handles the situation.
"There seems to be a real credibility problem about the district's being able to deal with its financial problems," said Baltimore's Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, an observer of district affairs and strong supporter of statehood for it. "But it's not a personal issue toward Mayor Barry. The district operates under too much governmental disability," he said, too much "micromanagement" by Congress on the one hand and neglect on the other.
Still, people remember that it was during Mr. Barry's first three terms, 1979-1991, that the city work force grew from slightly more than 34,000 to over 40,000. Under his successor, Sharon Pratt Kelly, it grew by another 5,000, making it the most expensive collection of civil servants of any city in the country, a constant drain on the district's revenues.
New problems also have cropped up. No sooner had Mr. Barry released his "action plan" of budget cuts than the City Council lowered the property tax. If allowed to go through, it could raise the deficit estimate by $40 million. The mayor has threatened a veto.
Also, last week it was learned that officials of Ms. Kelly's administration were being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly concealing adverse information about the district's finances when trying to borrow money on Wall Street.
There was some speculation that Mr. Barry might be exaggerating the deficit, possibly to make his announced cuts appear unavoidable to those who would bear them. But why bait a Congress dominated by Republicans, a party never overly friendly to the district?
"I think Barry is playing a complicated political game," said Marcus Raskin, a longtime champion of home rule and co-founder of Washington's Institute for Policy Studies. "I think he wants to make cuts, but at the same time he is warning Congress there are going to have to be changes" in the relationship between the district and the federal government.
Of all the district's liabilities, the labor force is the most common focus of criticism. The current 45,000 civil servants serve a population of 580,000. By comparison, Baltimore, with just about 700,000 people, has 26,000 city employees.
Though most critics agree 45,000 is too many, others argue a large work force is needed here to perform the usual city functions, plus run those bureaucracies Mr. Barry wants to return to the federal government. The district also operates a hospital, issues driver's licenses, and so on, duties that in other cities would be performed by the state government.
The drain of so many municipal employees is great. Raymond J. Keating, co-author of a new book called "D.C. By The Numbers: A State of Failure," said that district residents pay $293.06 a year per capita for the services of those employees. The average at state and local levels nationally is $130.08.
Mayor Barry has promised to cut some 5,000 jobs over the next two years. But it won't be easy in a city with little or no private industry, and few job opportunities to offer.