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Sequester’s gridlock cuts into city services

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Philadelphia is scrounging for money to reduce child lead poisoning. Mesa, Ariz., sales-tax revenue is softening as Boeing Co. suppliers cut back. Oklahoma City anticipates less spending from its largest employer, Tinker Air Force Base.

US mayors who gathered in Chicago last week for the Clinton Global Initiative America meeting say the automatic federal budget cuts known as sequestration are starting to ripple through their cities, forcing them to make difficult decisions about funding services their residents demand.

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The mayors blame partisan gridlock in Washington and are calling on Congress and President Obama to end the sequestration before more reductions take a deeper toll on cities that can’t deficit-spend like the federal government.

‘‘Congress has got to figure out a way to work together for the good of Americans and should not continue to hold many of our mayors and our cities hostage to this death by a thousand cuts,’’ Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter, a Democrat and president of the US Conference of Mayors, said by telephone.

Sequestration was supposed to be so intolerable to Republicans and Democrats alike that both sides would compromise on spending to avert $1.2 trillion in cuts over nine years. Instead, no accord was reached and reductions began in March. As much as $85 billion will be withheld for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, forcing service curtailments and payroll cuts.

In New York City, as many as 500 New York City Housing Authority workers may be dismissed because of sequestration.

‘‘We had a $205 million grenade dropped on us,’’ Housing Authority Chairman John Rhea said after a City Council hearing on the cuts, referring to a revenue shortfall caused by the federal spending reductions. The agency serves 650,000 residents who rely on it either for housing or rent assistance.

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Governing in an age of such austerity requires mayors to find new funding sources to sustain and improve their cities, Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago told about 1,000 business, government, and foundation leaders at the Clinton Initiative meeting. ‘‘We need private-sector dollars to come alongside to help us do what we used to do from a national level,’’ said Emanuel, a former White House aide to Obama and President Bill Clinton.

Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans said the federal cuts began just as cities were learning how to cope with new fiscal challenges in the post-recession economy.

‘‘Washington is not responding nearly as quickly and not nearly as forcefully as it has historically,’’ Landrieu said in Chicago. ‘‘You have a lot of mayors up here that are kind of starting to get with it, and to find new ways of solving old problems with new partners because our old partner has left us.’’

While cities with limited military or other federal operations might see less damage from sequestration, funding they rely on for low-cost housing, Community Development Block Grants, and other programs will be cut, said Michael Wallace, a National League of Cities program director in Washington. ‘‘Most cities are not in a position to supplant these dollars,’’ Wallace said by telephone. ‘‘Cities are going to be making some tough choices about which priorities to fill.’’

The success of efforts by mayors to replace money cut from federal funding will depend on how hard hit their communities were by the home-foreclosure crisis and the loss of tax revenue during the recession, Wallace said.

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