For years, members of the Schmoke administration repeated the premise as if chanting a mantra: Baltimore would have to cut its municipal work force, they said, in order to cope with spiraling costs and sluggish tax revenue growth.
But last week, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke indicated that the chant might soon fade from City Hall. Assuming that his plan to eliminate 1,186 positions from the city's 1992 operating budget survives the Board of Estimates and the City Council, Mr. Schmoke said, the city will have gone as far as it can in reducing its work force.
"We're at a point where if we continue to reduce the number of city employees, we'll have to think about eliminating certain services," the mayor said. "What we're going to have to do instead is think about ways of providing services in different ways."
Mr. Schmoke said that because he thinks the city cannot tolerate further reductions in city services -- such as trash collection and library and recreation programs -- future demands on the budget must be met by making agencies produce more without spending more and by attracting increased state aid.
Mr. Schmoke's comments came last Wednesday, moments after the administration presented the Board of Estimates with the mayor's proposed $1.787 billion operating budget for the 1992 fiscal year beginning July 1.
The budget calls for the elimination of 336 positions from the city payroll. Budget officials say the reduction can be achieved through normal attrition, avoiding the need for layoffs. Another 850 employees would be transferred to the state payroll as part of the scheduled July 1 state takeover of the problem-plagued City Jail.
But some community leaders and elected officials say the need for swift property tax reduction mandates that the city cut its work force even further.
"I think we can still get smaller and have the work still get done," said Councilman John A. Schaefer, D-1st, who was chairman of the council's Budget and Appropriations Committee until he was replaced earlier this month. "Baltimore County is as large as we ++ are, and what do they have, 8,000 employees?"
Baltimore County, which has 692,000 residents, has 12,000 school employees and another 8,000 employees in other departments.
Baltimore City has 736,000 residents. It will have 26,600 employees after the reductions.
"We don't have a choice," said David B. Rudow, vice president of the Baltimore City Taxpayer's Coalition for Fair Property Taxes. "I don't think it is written anywhere in the Baltimore City Code that we have to have 26,000 employees."
Since Mayor Schmoke took office, the city has instituted a number of measures designed to get more services out of scarce revenues.
For example, the city has turned the Baltimore Arena over to private management, initiated the sale of the Baltimore Trolley .. Works to a private company, abolished four fire companies, consolidated the police and fire infirmaries and combined agencies responsible for downtown development.
The Schmoke administration's efforts to improve management practices have received high marks from several publications that evaluate municipal governments.
But if they cannot make further payroll reductions, city officials say, they must find ways of getting more out of the workers they have.
To do that, the mayor has assigned members of his staff to work with the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of business leaders, to develop ways of making several city operations run more efficiently. The study group will examine Baltimore's cash management, data processing systems and the operation of the city's three printing facilities.
William R. Brown Jr., director of finance, said the Schmoke administration has also asked outside companies to examine the city's $100 million employee benefit program and to audit employee health claims to reduce fraudulent claims.
But he said his department did not have the manpower to take the kind of top-to-bottom look at the city's $1.8 billion government that he would like in order to recommend money-saving techniques. And he said he was not convinced it was worth hiring a private consultant.
"We don't know if we spend $250,000, we'll save $2 million. If that were the case, firms would work for free and get paid with a percentage of the savings," Mr. Brown said. "The resources are not available to pay a lot of money in the hopes that we can get it back, so we're working with the private sector which is donating its resources."
Cities across the United States, pressed by financial difficulties of their own, have developed novel alternatives to provide services their constituents have come to expect -- such as trash collection, water supply and police and fire protection.
For example, Seattle contracts with private companies to provide health care, trash collections, building maintenance and vehicle towing -- all services that in Baltimore are performed by municipal workers.