Tale of three cities

November 12, 1990

Washington Mayor-elect Sharon Pratt Dixon's ebullient campaign pledge to "clean house" by cutting 2,000 middle-management jobs from the District payroll called forth a somber echo last week when New York Mayor David Dinkins, citing a projected $1.5 billion budget shortfall, reluctantly announced imminent layoffs for some 5,500 city employees. Though New York's municipal work force is more than 10 times the size of Washington's, the cuts there are touted as a painful austerity measure, not a long overdue cutting of fat.

But to put the matter in truer perspective, merely compare Baltimore's work force with those of New York and Washington in 1987, the last year for which complete figures are available. That year, Baltimore employed a total of 31,000 full-time municipal employees to serve a listed population of just over 750,000 (recent Census estimates put the city's 1990 population nearer 720,000). By contrast, Washington, with a population of just 617,000, employed 47,000 full-time employees -- 16,000 more than Baltimore, even though Washington has 100,000 fewer people.

New York, with a population of 7.3 million, employed a veritable army of municipal workers -- 417,000 -- but even that represented a smaller proportion of people to city workers than Washington. For every 10,000 people in Baltimore there were roughly 407 municipal workers. In New York, the figure was 535 city employees per 10,000 population. But in Washington, the smallest of the three cities, there were actually 749 workers on the public payroll for every 10,000 city residents.

Washington, in fact, had the highest ratio of city workers to total population of any city in the country. No wonder Dixon is confident District employment can be trimmed without cutting essential services. Dinkins' problem, likewise, is mostly one of political perception. Baltimore, however, is a relatively small city with an already small workforce that moreover has been declining steadily over the past decade, mostly through attrition. If budget woes make layoffs necessary here, the cuts definitely will hurt.

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