Body Blow to Baltimore

November 16, 1991

Maryland's financial woes have forced Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to take several distasteful moves that diminish the quality of life in Baltimore City. But given the $27.5 million deficit facing the mayor, he had little choice.

Public schools will close for a week (if the state approves); eight library branches will be permanently shuttered; prosecutors and library workers furloughed for six days; the Baltimore Museum of Art locked up for two weeks and 571 city workers laid off. These are the vestiges of Maryland's deepening budget crisis and an indication of how badly poor jurisdictions fare in rough economic times.

The mayor called these cuts "a civil disaster." They were, at the least, a severe body blow. Even worse, the mayor may have to make further cuts as the state's fiscal black hole continues to grow.

All this comes as Mr. Schmoke prepares his own downsizing plans for city government. Baltimore's declining population can no longer justify a municipal bureaucracy of 27,000. But the mayor is sending contradictory signals.

For instance, he announced five fire stations were being closed and 252 jobs abolished because "the fire stations were laid out to accommodate a population that is much larger than ours."

Yet a week later, Mr. Schmoke offered to rescind these moves if firefighters drop a lawsuit to restore a pay increase awarded through binding arbitration but canceled by the mayor last spring. The city would use a $3 million reserve fund to cover the cost of that lawsuit for firefighters' salaries.

Such a Band-Aid won't solve the problem; it will only delay the day of reckoning. The mayor may well have to announce new fire department layoffs later this winter, or next spring.

Equally perplexing is the mayor's decision to shut schools for a week. Mr. Schmoke had a list of options from school officials, yet he chose the most controversial one. Officials in Annapolis deride this as a cynical political move. A better approach would be to slash the bureaucracy that runs the school system, a step that would lead to long-term savings and less red tape.

If the mayor's cuts are implemented next week, professionals in the municipal government will have to seek creative ways to overcome these obstacles. Teachers should motivate students to get value from the extra week off; librarians can use the closings to upgrade the remaining branches to serve broader reading constituencies, and health clinics should explore ways to keep treating 30,000 children despite the removal of city funds.

These are agonizing times for city residents. Budget cuts in the suburbs have been superficial compared with the mayor's pronouncements. From now on, it will be harder for Baltimoreans to enjoy the many benefits of urban life. Yet the basic services remain intact. Baltimore residents can look forward to difficult adjustments as services provided by City Hall shrink. The mayor's leadership will be crucial in this agonizing process.

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