Cutting the Meat, Saving the Fat at City Hall

DANIEL BERGER

November 23, 1991|By DANIEL BERGER

Baltimoreans had reason to hope for thoughtful ''zero-based budgeting'' from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. We are not getting it. If we are, it is secret.

Mr. Schmoke is no longer a newcomer to city administration but a thoughtful man who has had four years to learn how his government operates and how the machinery can be improved under the hood, to prepare for the crisis at hand.

The crisis was triggered by the state shortfall of $450 million, prompting Gov. William Donald Schaefer to say he will cut $20 million of budgeted aid to the city.

Mayor Schmoke responded by cutting services that city residents -- such as Mr. Schaefer -- consider essential. Firehouses, libraries, police patrols, school weeks, art museum weeks, health clinic service.

So two highly placed, responsible politicians are playing with pain. Neither is saying, ''I will streamline the machinery to deliver existing services more efficiently. Each is saying, I will cut the services if no more money materializes.''

In Mr. Schaefer's case, this appeared designed to get the General Assembly, which irresponsibly did nothing about the revenue-services equation, to raise taxes. In Mr. Schmoke's case, it appears designed to inspire Mr. Schaefer to find alternative economies. Both are also fencing with public-service unions.

So far, all bluffs are being called, all threats are being implemented, with some backing and filling by Mr. Schmoke. His announcement of 571 jobs cut to save $27.2 million got out the crowds of city employees and residents. He is now in the process of selectively giving in.

Meanwhile, the pain is felt in anticipation. Morale is plummeting in city agencies and confidence is waning on the part of residents, home-buyers and investors. In the long run, this harms the city even if all cuts are restored.

The city does need to make structural economies. This is not a result of unexpected recession. Everyone saw it coming years off. The city's population is falling and its economic base declining. The administrative apparatus needs to be downsized so that the services-per-resident can remain constant. This has been made a public issue only with regard to schools, but it applies to government as a whole.

Mr. Schmoke says he is going to ''remake'' the bureaucracy in the spring, in Phase Two of this exercise. But some of the less-well-planned cuts of Phase One would be irreversible.

If you look at the 15-year reign of Mayor William Donald Schaefer and ask, what is his monument? the knee-jerk answer is the Inner Harbor. The more thoughtful answer is the government itself, symbolized by an entire campus for municipal civil service. Not only was City Hall tastefully renovated, but two new municipal office buildings were built and a third purchased. Baltimore has a city government district any city would envy.

But what is in these fine buildings? Not service delivery. That occurs in police cars and multi-purpose centers and schools and rec centers and hokey carts, etc. The government center is where those services are supported. Can there be any economizing from a bureaucracy fit for a city of 950,000 people (in 1950) to one of 736,000 and shrinking with less aid coming in?

Some bureaucracies began on federal mandate and funds and survived the disappearance of both. Others because a strong executive had them tailored to his own temperament, sometimes duplicating older agencies.

This gets back to ''zero-based budgeting,'' one of the buzz-words of the 1970s. It held that a government agency, instead of justifying its annual budget increase, should justify its very existence each year, starting from a line item of zero. Sounds great. In practice, it would be a cynical or wasteful exercise. But there is a kernel of an idea which, during budget trauma, should be applied.

In some cases, it is the hidden bureaucracy, in others the worth of a service as measured against another service, that should be evaluated. This does not mean spreading a shortfall across all agencies equally. Anything but.

Does the city need an Urban Services Agency providing services at sites separate from nearby multi-purpose centers, or is it a relic of the 1960s that has run its course and should be folded into other city agencies? Do the Planning Department and the Department of Housing and Community Development duplicate functions?

Should the city be in the art gallery business on Charles Street? Does it need all its recreation centers? Is there some remaining purpose to the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture? Should the city run a hands-on activities center for children in a house full of art in north Baltimore County? Should it own an inn with the bizarre and uninviting name of Government House? Does it have real estate that should be sold when the market improves? Lots of such real estate?

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