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Mayors call for clearer federal role

Many of the nation's mayors are saying they want a much clearer signal from Washington on how the administration intends to address the problems of America's cities.

''It helps to know the rules of the game,'' explains Honolulu Mayor Eileen Anderson. ''The message I'm getting here is that we're on our own. The administration doesn't seem to want to quite come out and say it that way. It's waffling. But if that's the way it is, I'd like to know now so I can plan for the future and get on with the job.''

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Several other city leaders interviewed at the US Conference of Mayors meeting here say they, too, are eager to get a clearer indication of the Reagan administration's intentions. In part, the message is one of continued federal budget cuts and an as yet undefined role for cities in the proposed ''new federalism'' effort to get government closer to people. But the leak last weekend of an urban policy draft, suggesting an even further pullback of federal help for cities to bolster their independence, is adding to the pressure. Although the administration insists the President does not support much of the report's content, many mayors suspect he may buy its overriding philosophy.

A few, in fact, such as Coleman Young, incoming conference president and mayor of Detroit, find Washington's signal crystal clear and are trying to change it. In his installation remarks Mr. Young said no other national government has so ''washed its hands of its cities'' and refused to help stabilize the economies of its large population centers.

''America is not rich enough to afford disposable cities,'' he said.

''I think the President is sincere, but he's living in a dream world,'' Mayor Arthur Holland of Trenton, N.J., observed. ''We in the cities have a disproportionate share of those in the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. They're not our poor - they're everybody's poor. . . . Federal programs are in existence because there was a need that private enterprise wasn't finding it profitable to meet.''

Many mayors suggest that if new federalism is coming as the administration has pledged, it is critically important first to sort out the proper functions of each level of government without regard to dollar figures. Many here are convinced, for instance, that the federal government should bear the full cost of health and welfare services as a national responsibility.

Many mayors also want some direct link between the cities and Washington. They suspect they will not get a fair shake from rural-dominated legislatures slated to receive and distribute federal block grants.

Mayor Holland, for instance, notes that because New Jersey is having trouble balancing its budget, Trenton is not getting its usual revenue return of $1 million on utility taxes generated locally but collected at the state level.

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''The fatal flaw in new federalism,'' he says, ''is that it doesn't distinguish between municipalities on the basis of need as the states assume a stronger role. We need a continued, direct partnership between the cities and the federal government.''

Though a number of mayors continue to fret over whether or not they will get their fair share of dollars under new federalism, most concede there is a need for some consolidation of grants and welcome the idea of returning more government functions to the local level. Mayor William H. Muegge of Wheeling, W.Va., notes, for instance, that it took city leaders three years and required the approval of 56 federal agencies to relocate a local playground in the path of a planned highway.

A few mayors of smaller and medium-size cities say they could do without federal funds at all if Washington would revoke a plethora of federal standards local governments must meet in areas such as clean water and public transportation.

''They can keep all their federal money if they'll just take back their legislation - we'll handle our own affairs,'' says Bernis Sandler, mayor of Port Arthur, Texas.

And some, like Mayor Richard Verbic of Elgin, Ill., say they have been doing largely without federal grants in the competitive bid to get them. He says he could get along without the roughly 2 percent of his budget provided by Washington through revenue sharing and community development funds.

''It's really the big cities who've had the pipeline to Washington that have been complaining the most,'' Mayor Verbic says. ''I think some of them have depended too much on federal money and haven't managed it the way they should. . . . I think a lot of people are too impatient and too preoccupied with what was done in the past to look at the future of our country. Somebody had to take a stand, and I strongly feel the President's program ought to be given a chance to work.''

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel Pierce Jr., of course, agrees. Speaking of the administration's urban enterprise zone program, in particular, he told the mayors: ''I won't pretend it's perfect. It's an experiment, but let's give it a chance to work.''

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