Blame city woes on the governor

Dan Rodricks

November 11, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

Call the city budget cuts announced by Mayor Kurt Schmoke draconian and demoralizing, but don't call them surprising. Long before the recession hit and deficits started piling up, there were warnings that Baltimore faced a bleak future without some serious financial help from outside.

Few knew it better than Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the former mayor. Yet, last month, Baltimore's old boyfriend forced the city to share the pain of the state's $450 million budget shortfall. Schaefer announced that he would withhold more than $20 million in state aid to the city. And, if that wasn't exactly kicking a man when he was down, it was rolling him for a couple of bucks.

Some background, in case you've been on Mars: This city is poor, poorer than ever. It's among the poorest cities in the nation. Median family income is half what it is in surrounding counties. The city has been losing its middle class and businesses under the weight of a property tax rate at least double that of any Maryland county. Unfair and indefensible, sure. But it's been unfair and indefensible for a long time.

Knowing all that we do -- that kids in Baltimore schools suffer because of fiscal inequities, that thousands of poor people are stuck here, that the city has a terrible drug-and-crime problem and needs more police, that thousands of people live in substandard housing, that the middle-class can't afford another penny on its tax rate, that any further deterioration in city services is a further warning to investors to stay away -- knowing all this, we did next to nothing about it.

Both Ronald Reagan and George Bush turned tight the valves through which flowed the federal dollars that made urban redevelopment possible through the 1970s and early 1980s.

But champions of the city -- those foresighted few who took the successes of urban renewal (Harborplace, housing incentive grants) as proof that Baltimore's vitality had profound impact on the rest of the state -- saw great timing in William Donald Schaefer's ascent to the gubernatorial throne. With Baltimore's greatest champion in Annapolis, the city could continue to rise, with the help of its wealthier suburban neighbors, all working together under Schaefer's instruction.

Instead, five years later, what do we have?

* A school system, in dire need of rejuvenation, closing for a week.

* "The City That Reads" closing five library branches, and the central branch every Friday, to save money. (A reassuring note to suburban visitors: There are no plans to save money by having the Orioles play more away games next season, thus reducing the number of dates the new downtown stadium is open.)

* A fire department, already down-scaled in response to the city's declining population, forced to close five houses and disband 13 companies because they can no longer be afforded. Only layoffs in the understaffed, overworked police department, which is operating under a hiring freeze, could be more frightening for city residents.

The counties don't have such worries. The counties have money.

Baltimore, on the other hand, has been asked to do with less for a long time. Its cops, firefighters, social workers and teachers are underpaid. Its courts are overloaded. Its libraries go without new titles. Now we're preparing to close firehouses and libraries.

Where's the governor? As politically lame as a lame duck could be, and asking Baltimore to share the pain of his budget shortfall.

So much for the hope that, as governor, Schaefer could stir up some serious "metropolitanism" and sell the city's future to the suburbs. There was once a chance that, with leadership and compromise, Schaefer could get the counties interested in Baltimore's future, to see it as vital to the state's future.

But he blew it on both ends. He refused to speak to Kurt Schmoke, missing a chance to cultivate a new political alliance, and he squandered his electoral mandate on the petty politics of Annapolis, to the point where suburban and rural lawmakers couldn't stand to be in the same room with him. This allowed mealy-mouthed legislators to scuttle the Linowes Commission proposal, a tax-reform measure to distribute more money to needy jurisdictions. Now, Schaefer couldn't start a city-suburban dialogue if the city's life depended upon it, which unfortunately it does.

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