Maryland Needs Regional Services

December 29, 1991|By LOUIS L. GOLDSTEIN

When I gave a speech in the 1960s, pointing out the advantages of regional cooperation for Baltimore City and Baltimore County, my audience, the distinguished members of the Baltimore County Bar Association and their guests, pelted me with dinner rolls.

But despite that reception, I still believe strongly that regional government -- in the form of regional consortiums providing major government services -- is a must, not just in the Baltimore region, but throughout Maryland. And, at the risk of another bread bombardment, I want to tell you why.

The debate on the merits of regional government was rekindled in part by "Baltimore and Beyond," a special report carried in this newspaper on May 5. And it was brought to a boil when the Governor's Redistricting Committee proposed new state legislative districts spanning Baltimore County and Baltimore City.

But, despite the current flap over redistricting, the idea of regional government isn't as new or radical as it seems. In fact, 13 of Maryland's 47 legislative districts already span county lines. There are three state senators for the Eastern Shore's nine counties. If we thumb back through the pages of history, we can see that many Maryland counties used to be part of each other.

Frederick County once encompassed what is now Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett Counties. The Maryland Constitution of 1851 legally separated Baltimore City and Baltimore County and also carved Howard County out of Anne Arundel County. And Wicomico County was created from parts of Somerset and Worcester Counties in 1867.

The citizens and local governments of much of the Lower Shore region have suffered from a decline of the seafood packing and other traditional job and tax producing industries, and they would benefit from a cost-effective consolidation of some services. Those are just a few examples.

A century or more ago, when travel and communication were so much slower than they are today, it made sense to put the government closer to the people by dividing it into smaller units. But times have changed, even since I began my career in state government. Travel time throughout the state is greatly reduced. Add the impact of fax machines, computers and modems, and it becomes clear that Maryland has "shrunk," and that boundary lines around the subdivisions are in some ways obsolete.

The high cost of government has brought us to a turning point in the way we think of the role of government. There has been much talk of privatizing some government services. But maybe regional agreements are also an answer.

They have been an answer for decades at the other end of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission has provided water and sewer services to Montgomery and Prince George's Counties since early in this century. The National Park and Planning Commission also serves both of those counties successfully.

When I was a member of the Maryland Senate, we planted the seeds for cooperation in water use in the metropolitan Baltimore area that has led to a plan where water from the Susquehanna River will now serve Harford, Baltimore and Anne Arundel Counties and Baltimore City. Maryland's counties also cooperate areas such as insurance trusts, recycling and waste disposal. But these small steps are not nearly enough.

Without some kind of cooperation to provide basic services, government will not be able to maintain the level of quality of services our citizens have come to expect. Maybe smaller subdivisions could save money by purchasing supplies through cooperative buying agreements. Maybe water and sewer agreements could be expanded and some law enforcement activities shared. There are many possibilities.

If you think there is no benefit in regionalism for wealthier subdivisions in regional cooperation, think again. It is not possible for our state to have a bright and prosperous future while some of our communities sink further into the abyss of poverty, crime and despair.

The best example is Baltimore City. In fiscal year 1970, Baltimore businesses produced 27.9 percent of Maryland's total sales tax revenue -- by far the largest percentage of any subdivision. By fiscal year 1980, the city was second to Baltimore County by a whisker, producing 17.2 percent. In fiscal year 1990, Baltimore City ran fourth, behind Baltimore County, Montgomery and Prince George's Counties, producing 11.6 percent of the state's sales tax revenue -- a percentage that dropped to 11.4 percent in fiscal year 1991.

From tax year 1984 through tax year 1990, Baltimore City was the only Maryland subdivision that showed an actual drop in the number of individual income tax returns filed with our office, compared to double-digit increases in many of the counties.

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