While Congress stays pinned to the floor in its wrestling match with the federal budget, some of the nation's largest cities are grappling with their own fiscal crises.
In New York, Philadelphia, Washington and elsewhere, costly social problems and a slumping national economy have conspired to plunder municipal budgets. Cities are slashing services, raising taxes and laying off workers to do what the federal government can't seem to accomplish - balance their budgets.Not all cities are hurting. Seattle and Denver are thriving, Houston is rising from an economic abyss and Dallas gets high marks for steering its budget along the black line of solvency.
But some strains are universal. Drug abuse and homelessness are booming, and most cities are beginning to feel the effects of a national economic slowdown.
"I think all cities are experiencing financial crunches to different degrees," said Lance Simmens, assistant executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which represents cities with populations of more than 30,000.
"Most cities are facing problems that didn't exist in 1980. AIDS. Crack cocaine. The infrastructure has endured years of neglect, and that's starting to take its toll," he said.
Simmens added there are "strains from the federal disinvestment, from social problems, from restrictions on the ability to issue tax-exempt debt (and) the beginnings of an economic downturn in many areas of the country."
The National League of Cities surveyed 576 communities about their budgets earlier this year. Two-thirds reported they were less able to meet their financial needs than the year before.
"There's a lot of stress to cities of all sizes," a league spokesman said.
Philadelphia is the nation's leading economic basket case. The nation's fifth largest city expects to go broke sometime early in December unless it can plug a $206 million hole in its budget.