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Creative Juices Flow At Squeezed City Halls

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BESET by tightening budgets and increasing financial burdens imposed on them by Washington, cities across the country are looking for new ways to make local government work.

The new mantra: Be creative.

In Cody, Wyo., for example, the city has computerized the inventory of its electrical system to help determine when aging equipment, such as electrical transformers or underground lines, may need replacement.

Willmar, Minn., formed a partnership between the city, banks, churches, and a foundation to help provide shelter for needy residents. They put together $320,000 in revolving loans to help 128 families about to be left homeless after a mobile-home park closed.

In San Leandro, Calif., the city offers a "home earthquake strengthening program" for cheap. The program includes workshops, videos, and a tool-lending library so citizens can secure their homes - saving lives and money - for the next big earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area.

Cities "are constantly under the gun to find new ways to do the same old thing - to save a penny, to use a resource, to share a resource, to work with another community and save money," says Renee Winsky, the National League of Cities' manager of local government services.

These are among the ideas shared at a recent National League of Cities conference here. Finding ways to stretch a municipal dollar have become de rigueur at such meetings - for good reason.

With federal agencies paring down the services and funding they provide state and local governments, city officials are forced to do more with less.

A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington estimates that under the budget plan now before Congress, state and local governments stand to lose $95 billion in federal aid in the year 2002, compared with funding levels in the current law.

A loss in federal aid of that magnitude would exceed one-quarter of projected revenues from state sales taxes, personal income taxes, and corporate income taxes combined.

The GOP Contract With America prodded government at all levels "to wake up to the fact that Americans are tired of government and government officials who were not responsive to their needs," says Robert Kiehl, an Independent council member in Bridgeton, Mo.

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