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US cities want Congress to set clear priorities on nation's budget

United States cities are feeling very much abandoned by Washington these days. So says National League of Cities (NLC) President George Voinovich, who sees the situation as unnecessary and dangerous. Some kind of federal ``recovery'' program for cities is vital, and the fact that no clear set of national priorities emerged in the recent federal budget battle is troubling, he says.

But in an interview in his City Hall office here, Mr. Voinovich, who serves as Mayor of Cleveland, says Congress's biggest failure is its inability to take a bigger bite out of the nation's deficit.

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``Politicians are always looking for issues that will appeal to everyone,'' he says. ``Well, I don't care whether you're an urban dweller or a farmer -- the deficit is the enemy. And if we don't do something about it, the impact will be more severe than anything any external enemy can do to us.''

Stressing the degree to which trade is adversely affected by the deficit, Mayor Voinovich says: ``I'm not a sad sack or anything but I think we're in a survival mode. Things have changed, and we've got to get with it. It's us against them, and `them' is the world marketplace.''

``We've got to decide how we can best use our resources. Are we going to be a manufacturing country or aren't we? Are we going to have a steel industry? These are the big issues that need to be addressed,'' he says.

Washington, says the NLC president, must be willing to put all federal programs and tax breaks on the table, weigh them for consistency, and face up to some tough choices. In the process, Voinovich says he thinks Congress will have to raise taxes.

``We should take all the ornaments off the Christmas tree, look at each one, and put them back based on national priorities,'' he says. ``Maybe we'll only end up with half of them back on, but at least it will make some sense in terms of what's in the best interests of the country.''

In housing programs, for instance, Washington must decide whether encouraging home ownership among all Americans is a genuine priority, the NLC president says.

If it is, cutting direct spending for low- and moderate-income housing, while continuing to allow deductions for vacation homes and mortgage interest for wealthier Americans, may not be fair, he says. ``Let's treat everybody alike.''

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Examined under such circumstances, cities would be seen to deserve much better treatment from Washington than they've been getting, he argues.

Most cities have been trying very hard to help themselves, Voinovich insists.

They've done it through public-private partnerships, more efficient spending, and by tightening the squeeze on their taxpayers. Local taxes in Cleveland, for instance, are up 100 percent during the last six years, according to city officials.

One of the most vital ornaments Voinovich wants to be placed back on the Washington tree is some kind of temporary federal recovery program to help many major cities that haven't shared fully in the economic recovery.

``We're not capable of getting through this transition period without it,'' he says. ``Perhaps we have to look at it like Chrysler. OK, what needs to be done? How much is it going to take? When will it end?''

Along with such help, the NLC president says Washington should come to grips with the question of whether the nation can any longer afford, by housing vouchers and other incentives, to encourage Americans to move.

Voinovich points out the paradox in which Sunbelt cities are scrambling to install road, sewer, water, and school services for new residents, while the infrastructure in many northern cities is already in place -- much of it built with US tax money.

``Right now people are being encouraged to move out of Cleveland. I think we should have a national policy to encourage people to stay where they are and rehabilitate the infrastructure we already have,'' says Voinovich. ``This disposable city concept is ridiculous.''

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