Mandate for Budget Discipline

July 01, 1991

Baltimore City's new budget achieves a long-time goal of homeowner-activists. The city's property tax is coming down 5 cents. This is a start, even though Baltimore homeowners still pay more than twice the property taxes of the second most-heavily-taxed local jurisdiction in Maryland.

It is too early to get too congratulatory, however. This is aelection year, after all, and politicians are capable of hocus-pocus. Nothing in the city's dismal long-term economic picture has changed; middle-class families still think they can avoid life's problems simply by fleeing the city.

Only hours after the new budget was enacted last week, nearl1,000 agitated people gathered in Lansdowne and Baltimore Highlands. They had heard -- and believed -- erroneous rumors that the city was about to annex those Baltimore County communities. "It just ain't so," one official told the crowd. Many cheered, but others remained doubtful. "I'm going to put my house on the market," one distrustful participant said.

If a blatantly untrue rumor can trigger such fears, city officialand image-makers have a major public relations challenge ahead of them. Lansdowne is not an isolated case. Look how desperately Brooklyn and Curtis Bay want to secede from the city and become part of Anne Arundel County.

Will a lower property-tax rate make Brooklyn and Curtis Baresidents more optimistic about the city's future? We would hope so. The symbolic cut suggests that Baltimore residents are not doomed to ever-increasing taxes. It shows that the city's financial situation can be controlled and improved.

Turning the city around will not be easy. Baltimore's own fiscaexperts made this clear in their preliminary strategic financial plan a few months ago. The number of municipal employees must be decreased, additional revenue sources located. Belt-tightening will not be enough, however. New thinking will be required and cozy conventions upset. Analysts foresaw this and warned that "the implementation of the plan is not without sacrifices and, in some cases, may not be politically popular."

So far, this fiscal blueprint has not been adopted by the Board of Estimates as an official city policy. Yet nothing will change Baltimore City's long-term financial predicament without a formal policy of fiscal self-discipline. We urge the Board of Estimates to adopt the strategic financial plan as an official guideline. That would give elected officials a mandate to continue downsizing municipal bureaucracies, devise innovations and efficiencies, reduce the property tax rate further and create a rainy-day fund for unforeseen emergencies. Such a broad and concentrated action plan is required to build confidence in the city's future.

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