Baltimore Is Not Bridgeport

June 17, 1991

Baltimore and Bridgeport have a lot more in common than the first letter of their names. They are troubled cities with more than their share of poverty, blight and crime. Like other urban centers they have been hurt by drastic cutbacks in federal assistance during the Reagan-Bush era and by the recession-spawned budget crunch that has suddenly beset state governments. They are surrounded by wealthy counties that have tax rates only half as high as those imposed on a dwindling number of city residents and businesses.

But there the resemblance ends. Though Baltimore starts with a "B," it enjoys a steady "A" rating from Standard and Poor and an "A-1" rating from Moody's on its municipal bonds. Bridgeport, in contrast, was already wallowing in a triple-B rating -- the lowest investment grade -- when its mayor announced June 6 that it was filing for bankruptcy. Then its bond rating promptly dropped to triple-C, which means junk, as in junk bonds.

Even if the state of Connecticut succeeds in reversing Mayor Mary C. Moran's brash move, it is doubtful that Bridgeport's bonds will climb back soon to investment grade. While she has quite bravely gotten the attention of a nation that would prefer to ignore the plight of aging cities, she has adversely affected Bridgeport's overall reputation, the value of its existing properties and its prospects for attracting new investment. Moreover, municipal employee unions accuse her of using the bankruptcy route to evade labor contract obligations.

Bridgeport's declaration of bankruptcy -- the largest city to do so since the Depression -- has sent tremors through the municipal bond markets, to the detriment of cities everywhere. Three quarters of America's 5,000 cities -- including Baltimore -- are struggling with budget gaps.

Clearly, Mayor Moran's formula for Bridgeport is a course Baltimore City ought to avoid at all costs. It is not just a matter of spurning municipal bankruptcy but of keeping a tight rein on capital projects and of keeping up the good fight for a fairer distribution of state funds to help the poorest subdivisions. If the rich counties refuse to recognize their obligations to the urban centers, there will be many more Bridgeports until, at last, a creditable urban policy is forced upon Washington, state governments and rich suburbs.

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