Washington is dying, Barry warns


WASHINGTON -- Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. went to Capitol Hill yesterday and somberly told Congress that it was partly to blame for the District of Columbia's current drift toward financial "death."

He repeated earlier assertions that the problem grows out of the original agreement made more than two decades ago by the federal government and city officials who were eager to achieve limited self-government.

"Very early, it became clear that the home rule charter was not workable," Mr. Barry said. It imposed too many responsibilities on the district without giving it the means to pay for them, and loaded the city down with debt, he said.

With the prospect of bankruptcy looming, as outlined in a report made public yesterday by the General Accounting Office, the mayor asked for $267 million to help alleviate a budget deficit of $722 million for this year. He also asked the federal government to assume responsibility for the services it provided before the district won home rule.

The situation is dire, Mr. Barry warned. "If we don't get some relief from the federal government, we are going to be presiding over the death of the district."

Such grim thoughts also were on the mind of Eleanor Holmes Norton, the district's nonvoting delegate to Congress. Describing the city's predicament as "dangerous," she reiterated her call for an oversight commission to take charge of district finances.

The alternative to forming one now with input from the district government, she said, is having one imposed by the Treasury Department. That would mean the end of home rule, "true death to the district, in effect giving up home rule."

Before the mayor addressed the joint meeting of the two principal House subcommittees on district affairs, a representative of the GAO, John W. Hill Jr., confirmed that the city was virtually insolvent, unable to pay its bills.

"It is now clear that the district will run out of cash this summer," he said.

Robert Pohlman, the district's chief financial officer, said that day might come even sooner, by May, if help is not forthcoming.

Despite a generally sympathetic reaction to the mayor and the city's problems from most members of the two subcommittees yesterday, the help that district officials say they need does not appear to be on the horizon.

Mr. Barry, who recently began his fourth term, told Congress that mistakes made in negotiations for the home rule charter contributed to the current crisis. Until those mistakes are rectified, he predicted, problems will recur.

Yesterday, before the subcommittees, he stressed the holdover debt and the cost of pensions inherited from the federal government. The pensions -- for 11,700 retired firefighters, teachers, police officers and others who had once been on the federal payroll -- cost the district government $260 million a year.

Rep. James T. Walsh, the New York Republican who heads the D.C. Appropriations subcommittee, accused the district of not living up to the commitments it made at the time home rule was approved.

"Balanced budgets was one of them," he said.

Mr. Walsh's response to Mr. Barry was the harshest of the day. He rebuffed the mayor's complaints about restrictions on his government's ability to tax real estate in a city with so many buildings occupied by non-taxpaying entities, such as the federal government and foreign embassies. Other cities, Mr. Walsh said, have tax-exempt real estate such as churches and schools.

The congressman complained about the high wages paid to district municipal workers -- "a $30,000 average" -- and about welfare benefits that he said were too generous.

And he dismissed Mr. Barry's appeal that the federal government take back the administration of corrections, Medicaid, higher education, juvenile services, motor vehicle regulation and other services usually provided by a state government to its large cities.

"If two-thirds of the responsibilities for running the district should belong to the federal government," he said, "why should there be home rule?"

Mr. Walsh quoted an admonition that he said his mother once made to him: "You made your bed; now lie in it."

Mr. Walsh said he would not introduce legislation to give the city emergency funding. "I can't do it," he said. "It won't pass."

Since the size of the deficit became known, Mr. Barry has sought to escape blame, though the municipal work force increased by nearly 25 percent in his first three terms.

Yesterday, he continued to lay much of the blame on his predecessor, Sharon Pratt Kelly. He accused her of dubious accounting practices and of failing to pay necessary bills and make budget cuts.

He pointed out that the GAO report was most critical of district finances from 1991 to 1994. "I was not mayor in those years," he said.

Mr. Barry's appearance had been scheduled for weeks. Its purpose was to provide the oversight subcommittees with details of the mayor's plan to deal with the deficit, released in summary Feb. 2.

Since then, speculation has been rife that Mr. Barry lacked the political will to make the deep cuts in the work force that most agree are needed. This doubt encouraged the City Council to act on its own.

David A. Clarke, the council chairman, said yesterday that the council already has made job and wage reductions totaling about $70 million in the 1995 budget.

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