Gov. William Donald Schaefer has offered Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke a deal he cannot afford to reject: a takeover of the poorly run and terribly overcrowded City Jail -- if the city gives up its state police aid. This swap would net Baltimore $2 million in savings this year and much larger amounts later. It is the kind of downsizing of city government that makes fiscal and operational sense.
The governor also is asking the General Assembly to take over financial responsibility for the Baltimore Zoo. This three-year phase-in would save Mr. Schmoke another $2.1 million while keeping the non-profit Zoological Society in charge of the institution. It's a can't-miss deal for the city.
Baltimore is strapped for money. It is in a perennial hole at budget time. The on-going recession makes matters worse. So when the governor offers to lift a couple of financial burdens from the city's shoulders, it is time for applause.
A state takeover of the City Jail and its $40 million overhead would free Mr. Schmoke of an enormous headache. Management problems are mounting. Staff morale is poor. Little training is conducted for guards. The aging facility will require huge capital investment. An 800-bed expansion has been delayed because Mr. Schmoke insists on air-conditioning -- unheard of elsewhere.
Since the City Jail is next to the Maryland Penitentiary, it would be relatively simple for the state to consolidate operations, professionalize the jail's training program, build the new wing and come away with a far more cost-efficient and flexible system. Future costs would be the state's responsibility, not the city's.
While the mayor does not relish losing $38 million in police aid, the swap still gives Baltimore extra money to balance its budget. And Mr. Schmoke can always make new appeals for police assistance from the state, especially after the recession runs its course.
Turning over financial control of the zoo is an added benefit. The zoo is, after all, a regional resource which needs the state's deep pockets to help modernize and expand its exhibits in Druid Hill Park and promote its attractions statewide.
This package marks an important step in shifting onerous obligations from the municipal government to the state. Two other key elements will have to wait until the state can afford them: a takeover of the city's Circuit Court and the state's attorney's office. That would save $16.5 million, or 21.6 cents off the property tax rate. Maryland has to step forward to ensure that public services in the city do not decline precipitously. The governor's zoo-and-jail-for-police-aid swap is an encouraging development that legislators ought to endorse.