Schmoke Applies Political Lessons to Discussion of Reorganization Plan

February 16, 1992|By MICHAEL A. FLETCHER | MICHAEL A. FLETCHER,Michael Fletcher covers city government in Baltimore for The Baltimore Sun.

The education of Kurt L. Schmoke as mayor is evident in the way he is handling his cabinet's plan for reorganizing city government.

The mayor is staying as far away as possible from the report's recommendations, calling them ideas for discussion. He says his opinions will emerge only after the public debate over the plan subsides.

The proposals now before Mr. Schmoke would radically restructure city government by merging several departments, consolidating overlapping services and eliminating financial support for Baltimore's cultural institutions.

Baltimore contributes $10.1 million a year to support its museums, zoo and theaters -- amenities that in many ways legitimize a city.

The mayor's noncommittal position on the reorganization is a big difference from his posture early in his first term, when he endorsed a plan to close several firehouses on the mistaken notion that logic would carry the day. After all, he said then, some of the firehouses slated to be closed could actually be seen from other fire stations. Moreover, he said, the stations were opened in the days of horse-drawn fire equipment, long before modern, fast-moving fire-fighting apparatus.

But Mr. Schmoke was stepping into a political minefield in which sound rationale offers little protection. Previously invisible constituencies materialized to fight to save the firehouses, much as they do whenever City Hall targets what on paper looks like an underused facility, be it a recreation center, library or firehouse.

The mayor eventually closed the firehouses, but only after a messy battle that left many neighborhoods angry with City Hall.

This time, rather than bucking the myriad interest groups and constituencies, the administration's reorganization plan attempts to rally them to the city's aid.

But, however good those intentions, the mayor may find that people opposed to his administration's plan may be alienated by any threat to their favorite city service.

Mr. Schmoke's abortive plan to close schools for a week in the wake of state budget cuts backfired that way. Mr. Schmoke hoped his school-closing plan would drive home the severity of Baltimore's fiscal problems and galvanize support for more help from the General Assembly.

Instead, he was criticized by teachers, state education officials and legislators, who bashed his school closing plan as an ill-conceived ploy. The criticism forced Mr. Schmoke to back off and keep schools open.

The proposal to cut support for cultural institutions is prompted by a fundamental question: Can the city afford to pay for fancy attractions that attract mainly suburbanites when its school children need textbooks, its libraries are scrambling for support and its overwhelmed police department can't afford to fill vacancies?

In the unlikely event that the city actually withdrew all of its support for cultural institutions over the next five years, somebody would have to fill the void. And presumably, at least some of the support would come from suburbanites who frequent the city's zoo, museums and theaters.

Report after report talks about how Baltimore's health dictates the health of the region and even the entire state. If Baltimore is not viable, they say, what will people outside the area think of Towson, Bel Air or Severna Park? Furthermore, what would it be like to live in those places without the diversions available in the city?

Those report also call Baltimore the region's economic engine, Maryland's cultural hub. They call Baltimore the state's playground, because of the Inner Harbor attractions and the Orioles.

"I don't think the average voter believes all of that, but I'm convinced that most government officials do," Mr. Schmoke says.

While the state government provides substantial help to the city (although some city officials say the amount is inadequate), Baltimore receives little more than lip service from its suburban neighbors. Suburban legislators all but laughed at a proposal that would have given the city a modest amount of the piggy-back income tax that now returns with commuters from the city to their home counties.

Much of that attitude toward Baltimore in enmeshed in racial politics and the anti-tax fervor that dominates suburban politics. But some elements of the reorganization may cause a re-examination of the suburban view of Baltimore.

Much of the plan involves internal governmental stuff. Merging support offices. Combining engineering functions. Consolidating the repair of city vehicles. Reorganizing the work of public information officers.

But other recommendations, such as the recommendation to end city funding for the cultural institutions, challenge people who claim to be supporters of the city to put their money where their mouths are.

"We may not do this," Mr. Schmoke says. "What's important to me is getting the community involved in this discussion. We are not committed to any course of action. But, one thing is clear, we do have to redefine what business local government should be in."

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