On the ropes

November 12, 1991

Mayor Schmoke bit the bullet last week and ordered major reductions in city services from libraries to schools to firehouses to meet a $27 million loss in state aid. But while the city's long-term budget crunch was pitched into crisis by this year's recession, the crisis won't pass even when the economy recovers.

That's because the structural trends giving rise to Baltimore's fiscal squeeze -- a shrinking tax base, middle-class flight and the end of federal aid -- will remain essentially unchanged. The city is the state's employment center. Yet because the largest fraction of income tax revenues from commuting workers goes to the subdivisions where they live, rather than where they work, Baltimore profits little from its role as regional economic engine.

Historically, cities solved this dilemma by simply expanding to incorporate the surrounding suburbs into the municipal tax base. But that's no longer an option.

Thus, as a first step toward meaningful regional cooperation every effort should be made during the current legislative reapportionment process to create overlapping districts between Baltimore city and Baltimore County. Such districts would ensure that suburban lawmakers had a compelling stake in city issues. They would also serve to shore up the city's waning clout in Annapolis.

What is needed is an unambiguous signal that the de facto economic interdependence of city and suburb will be reflected in the state's political institutions -- and its tax and revenue distribution formulas. Suburban lawmakers traditionally have resisted this idea, but the principle of regional cost-sharing remains the only practical alternative to a gradual deterioration of the city, and the region.

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