Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's $2-billion spending plan for Baltimore City is a proverbial glass that is either half-full or half-empty, depending on your point of view.
It does not contain any reduction in the property-tax rate, for instance. But a four-percent assessment cap translates into an effective three-cent tax cut for residential property owners. And while no election-year salary increases are proposed for the 26,602 municipal employees, there won't be any lay-offs, either.
So how bad is it?
Bad enough. According to projections on which the mayor's budget proposal is based, the city's real revenue growth for the fiscal year starting in July will be only $10.1 million, or 1.3 percent, which is below the margin of statistical error.
Moreover, in balancing his proposal, Mr. Schmoke assumed that the city would collect $6.9 million from the beverage container tax. The City Council, however, has taken a preliminary vote to repeal the controversial tax May 31. The council wants to replace this tax with a $10-a-ton surcharge on tipping fees paid by haulers of commercial waste. But such a fee, even if it passes, would raise only $4.8 million annually.
Beyond all this, the City Council is still talking about slicing Mr. Schmoke's budget so members can claim to have cut the property tax rate in an election year. Never mind, for instance, that the mayor already has eliminated $855,000 from a rodent eradication program (after state aid was lost). The council now wants to chop even further.
The worst that could happen this budget season is that council members, motivated by opportunistic political considerations, lose sight of the city's long-term needs and realities and opt for haphazard cuts and expedients so they can look good with voters this summer.
The Finance Department outlined those realities in a 35-page action plan less than three months ago. After a population loss that drained Baltimore of much of its middle class, the city simply cannot support its current level of services, analysts said.
To bring the situation under control, the Finance Department recommended a number of measures requiring prudence and self-discipline by City Hall. "The implementation of the plan is not without sacrifice and, in some cases, may not be politically popular," the city's fiscal experts warned. Yet the council has been unwilling to confront such fundamental concerns.
That is why the City Council's mishandling of the container-tax issue is so distressing. In its desire to win campaign contributions and support from special-interest groups, the council is playing politics rather than dealing with the city's basic problems in a systematic fashion. Yet nothing but a sober, long-term plan will bring Baltimore's chronic budget problems under control.