Fiscal prudence exacts its own cost Management praised but services missed THE SCHMOKE YEARS

August 11, 1991|By Martin C. Evans

Since Kurt L. Schmoke has been mayor, there are fewer xTC police officers to chase Baltimore's criminals, fewer library employees to hand out books, fewer parks employees to supervise children and fewer sanitation workers to clean the streets.

But far from being embarrassed about the shrinkage of the government he heads, Mr. Schmoke points to it as a sign of

prudent fiscal management every chance he gets.

It is known as downsizing, and, Mr. Schmoke says, "What that has meant to the citizens has been a well-managed city -- particularly compared to other cities -- and has allowed us to maintain our bond rating and to retain services at a time when other cities are abandoning those services."

For example, the mayor says downsizing has enabled him to focus on priorities he considers essential -- such as education, where he increased the ratio of teachers to children in the first and second grades and doubled the number of music and art teachers in elementary schools.

But the pressure to save money has forced agency chiefs to chose whether to cut one program to spare another, and it is there that the mayor's critics say downsizing has made useless skeletons of agencies that once were providers of service. For example:

* Members of the City Council, whose job it has become to prod city workers to fix potholes, clean trash-strewn lots or board up vacant buildings, say agency chiefs who once responded quickly to such calls now throw up their hands in despair, blaming manpower shortages.

* The Department of Recreation and Parks -- which for years has saved money by deferring maintenance -- has so far this summer had several recreation centers rendered virtually unusable because of broken air conditioning.

* Community leaders say the reduction in the street-cleaning forces has left even major streets in Baltimore looking shabby.

"We haven't had our streets cleaned in a couple of months," said Clay A. McDonald, 77, a retired steel worker who lives on Ravenwood Avenue in Northeast Baltimore. "I've never seen the weeds and trees so high since I've been living here."

But much as the reduction of city government has brought criticism on Main Street, it has gone over well on Wall Street, where the safety of the bonds issued by Baltimore and thousands of other municipalities around the country are rated.

A high bond rating lowers a municipality's cost of borrowing money, indirectly saving its taxpayers perhaps millions of dollars in interest payments.

Cathy S. Krust, an analyst for Moody's Investors Services, says that Baltimore's general obligation bonds continue to be rated A-1 -- or above average -- as they have been since 1976.

At Standard & Poor's Corp., which also rates the city's bonds above average, ratings officer Diane P. Brosen said, "They took action early in the financial planning. . . . They didn't wait until problems actually materialized."

From virtually the day he took office in December 1987, Mr. Schmoke made the downsizing of city government a top priority.

Successive years of Reagan-era reductions in federal aid to the cities -- including the total elimination in 1987 of federal revenue-sharing that had been as high as $23.9 million in 1983 -- already had begun to bite, and would bite harder.

The city payroll was placing an ever-greater burden on taxpayers even as Baltimore's population was shrinking. And, Mr. Schmoke reasoned, with the national economy having posted successive years of expansion, the inevitable downturn could plunge the city into the kind of fiscal crisis now afflicting New York, Philadelphia and Bridgeport, Conn.

"We had to adjust to [those] factors when I came into office," said Mr. Schmoke, who through a combination of hiring freezes, incentives for early retirement and a small number of outright layoffs -- in addition to the state takeover of the City Jail and the Community College of Baltimore -- has cut more than 2,700 budgeted positions from the payroll.

Mr. Schmoke says that in reducing the size of government, he has managed to avoid its greatest risk -- a precipitous decline in services that would make the city a worse place to live.

Now, he says, even further cuts may be on the way. For example, the city is considering reorganization plans for the police and fire departments -- agencies that have traditionally been sacrosanct.

He also said he is determined to eliminate four day-care centers from the city budget, perhaps by finding someone else to assume their costs.

And more people who call City Hall are getting a recording instead of a person. Some 380 voice-mail telephone lines handle calls that a year ago were answered by a human voice, with more lines being scheduled for hookup in the coming year.

"But we're getting to the point where we're getting into muscle and not just fat," Mr. Schmoke said.

Still, some Baltimoreans contend that the mayor has not gone far or fast enough and that city government should be cut even more.

David B. Rudow of the Baltimore City Homeowners Coalition for Fair Property Taxes said the city could adopt any of a range of lower-cost options, such as using smaller, more fuel-efficient police cars or turning over trash collection to private haulers.

"Yes, there are fewer people working for the city, there is a moderate downsizing taking place, but it's nothing near what needs to be done," Mr. Rudow said.

"I think the magnitude of the change and the speed with which the change is taking place are both inadequate," he said.

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