Looking at the Future

May 05, 1991|By Neal Peirce and Curtis W. Johnson

Baltimore and its surrounding counties need to hurry to make a deal.

While the city boasts a glittering chain of waterside projects, it also is becoming poorer and poorer, losing more middle-class residents every year. Without some real help, Baltimore is in danger of becoming America's next Detroit or Newark, N.J.

The surrounding counties have developed into economically independent jurisdictions, no longer slow-moving satellites of the big city. And some county residents, who rarely see a need to go to the city anymore, seem to feel that as long as Harborplace or the Orioles survive, the rest of Baltimore could slide into the bay.

If the city's free fall and the counties' withdrawal aren't stopped soon, economic prospects and the quality of life from Columbia to Bel Air, Glen Burnie to the Pennsylvania border, will be imperiled.

In the emerging world economy, the critical competitors are metropolitan regions. The Baltimore area already faces tough rivals as close as Norfolk/Hampton Roads in Virginia and as distant as Singapore or Rotterdam, Netherlands. Meanwhile, the sheer economic weight of Washington and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs, home to the biggest federal facilities and thousands of businesses, grows yearly.

But so far, Baltimore City and its neighbors are failing to function cooperatively. They oftentimes exhibit sheer indifference toward each other -- and, on occasion, outright hostility. A political hacksaw hovers over the neck of any county official who suggests meaningful assistance to the troubled inner city. A Baltimore politician will be pilloried for giving up an ounce of the city's autonomy, now that blacks are finally in full control.

The best defense is for Baltimore and its surrounding counties to strike a deal -- a deal based on mutual respect, a deal in which all the players win.

At the heart of a deal must be enthusiastic county support for new state policies that will channel major tax revenue to Baltimore City. For all its attractions, Baltimore is among the poorest of U.S. cities.

Its tax rate of $5.95 per $100 of assessed value, at least double that of any Maryland county, a huge burden on its businesses and remaining middle class -- strikes us as terribly unfair and indefensible.

In a truly cohesive region, the Baltimore-area counties would be leading the charge for tax reform proposed by the gubernatorial commission headed by Montgomery County lawyer R. Robert Linowes. The plan, now shelved until next year's General Assembly session, would raise $800 million in new yearly revenues and distribute more money to needy jurisdictions. Would Baltimore City be the short-term winner? Yes. Would a fiscally stronger city benefit the entire region? Yes, and for years to come, we suggest.

But there's an onus on Baltimore City to change, too. It must earn outsiders' support by radically improving its schools. Until that happens, there's not a chance the Baltimore region will have high-quality work force in the next decades.

Baltimore must also concentrate intense effort on human reconstruction in its most deeply deprived neighborhoods. The social turmoil convulsing those neighborhoods, from shattered family life to drug dependency to vicious crime, is ruining too many lives and costing too much money to tolerate.

Baltimore City must sharpen its management practices, trim bureaucracies and contract services to private companies when that would save money. The slate's not blank here. About 1,400 city jobs have been pared in the past two years. And the city's experimenting with one of America's most advanced computerized geographic information systems. From planning street improvements to tracking school truancy to spotting gang activity, the system has fascinating potential.

Yet there's also serious bureaucratic lethargy. We heard many people who like Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke complain about the quality of many of his top appointees.

Baltimore has 736,000 people but a hangover bureaucracy large enough for its old size of 950,000. But more than reduced payrolls are appropriate. Baltimore should follow the lead of Dianne Feinstein, the former mayor of San Francisco, who enlisted business executives to act as consultants to major departments.

It isn't humbling when a city seeks business assistance; it's smart. The city manager of Bellevue, Wash., the most prosperous big suburb in its region, has just asked chief executive officers from the Pacific Northwest to provide regular reviews of the city's management. (The Greater Baltimore Committee has offered Baltimore City the same kind of cooperation. But City Hall's response, several business leaders told us, has been less than enthusiastic).

Strong steps to tighten management would not only win Baltimore respect from Towson to Annapolis; they'd boost the city's reputation in national and international investment circles.

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