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Balancing federal budget means new balancing acts in localities

bus

December 25, 1995
Web posted at: 8:40 p.m. EST

From Correspondent Charles Bierbauer

TAMPA, Florida (CNN) -- While state and local governments wait for Washington to make up its mind about how it will balance the budget, governors, county commissioners and city councilors can be certain of at least one thing: There are going to be changes in how they do business and how much money is available to do it.

Many state and local officials are concerned they will end up having to do more with less. "Florida in seven years from now is a basket case," said that state's Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles.

The changes could put county and city officials on the spot. "We can't just turn our backs and assume that somebody else is going to take care of the problem. There is no one else," said Hillsborough County Deputy Administrator Pat Bean.

In Tampa, housing officials fear that they may be hung out to dry with federal cutbacks, either in actual spending or in limited growth. Belt-tightening already is being forced by recent changes. The city's director of community Services, Fernando Noriega, pointed out a boarded-up house that the city had enough to buy but not enough to rehabilitate so that it would match other houses in the reclaimed neighborhood. "This is one house that continues to be a cell, a cancer cell, in the rehabilitation of the neighborhood," he said.

Part of the problem is that promised rules changes do not always accompany budgeting changes. The head of Tampa's non-profit housing authority says that he could do more if Congress gives him a freer hand. "Take away some of the regulations. Give us the freedom to be creative like normal business people and we can make it work," said Audley Evans, executive director of the Tampa Housing Authority.

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Federal job training is another target for budget cutters. The program is undeniably expensive. Carolina Hammond, who went from welfare to a career as a registered nurse, said her eyes were opened as she went through job training. "I didn't know how much it entailed, financially wise, just to keep one person, one student, in school," she said. "I just assumed that, like a lot of other people, it was just a program."

The mood in much of the country now is to shed or shrink many such programs. "Taxpayers want to see as many dollars coming back as they send to Washington," said Paul Peterson of Harvard University.

Chiles says states are unlikely to fill the gap. "The legislature would do something like the federal government is doing -- they'll pass the problems on down to local and county government," he said. "That's probably where the most drastic impact will hit the soonest as far as having to raise taxes." (179K AIFF sound or 179K WAV sound)

That could be the worst possible situation, Peterson contends. "That would create a competition among municipal governments (and) county governments that are just totally unequipped to deal with the problems of welfare, deal with the problems of poverty," he said.

Eventually, there is no place to pass the buck. County officials have to be the ones to make to make the changes work. "We have no choice," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Phyllis Busanky. "We are not allowed, thank God, to let people die on the driveways."

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Hillsborough County, like others around the country, already is dealing with cutbacks in various programs. Two years ago, for instance, it had a $2.5 million federal subsidy to run its buses. Next year, it will have nothing. "If they cut the buses, then I've got to find another job or something because I don't drive, you know," a bus rider said. (68K AIFF sound or 68K WAV sound)

But while the authority in Tampa is losing federal funds to help run the buses, its hands are still tied by federal regulations -- such as those covering labor and people with disabilities -- that tell it how to run the buses. "We have a situation where federal initiatives continue to drive our costs up, at the same time that the federal funds are diminishing," said Sharon Dent of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit.

The revolution in Washington is fueling the de-evolution of responsibility to the states. But it's not a free ride.

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