Mayor, make the point, now!

Dan Rodricks

March 13, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

Kurt Schmoke has taken another bow. Almost all of his recent performances have ended with one.

This time, the mayor of Baltimore bowed to public pressure -- if you want to call 1,500 cards and letters public pressure -- to keep the financially strapped city supporting the arts to the tune of $10 million a year. Only a month or so ago, the mayor's Cabinet suggested the city stop being such a generous patron -- funding the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Gallery, to name just two -- when the city's cultural institutions are largely patronized by people from the suburbs. If the city can't keep the toilets working in its schools, why should it pay to keep Howard County schoolchildren coming to the BMA?

But, alas, it didn't take long for Schmoke to cave in. The proposed phase-out of the city's support for arts has been nixed. That $10 million is back in the budget. Which makes you wonder what the point of this exercise was. Does Schmoke know what he's doing? Does he have any nerve?

It's obvious to everyone except the intellectually dishonest that Baltimore can't survive without more money. The city has twice the property tax rate and half the median income of most of its surrounding counties. The city has the highest concentration of the state's poor, putting extraordinary burdens on the local government. The city's declining population -- in particular, its middle-class homeowners -- can least afford to pay to keep vital services, not to mention the cultural institutions, in place.

When last fall the governor announced plans to reduce state aid, Schmoke should have been angry and he should have roused his constituents. He should have shamed Annapolis for proposing that the city take the biggest hit.

Instead, Schmoke announced that library branches would have to close, and he said he would furlough teachers for a week and close the city schools to save money.

All of this -- I'm guessing here -- was designed to galvanize public sympathy for the city and to get Baltimore's suburban neighbors thinking about a regional approach to the city's problems. Baltimore's problems are everyone's problems. You could insulate a house with reports that have said that. Baltimore is the economic engine that drives the state. A healthy city means a healthy region. That was Schmoke's message, but it was lost in the uproar over his announced cuts.

Of course, there are a lot of people who don't buy it anyway. Consider the man who called this desk from Catonsville yesterday to say, in short, that Baltimore's problems were created by Baltimore; the city doesn't deserve his tax dollars.

Yet that man and thousands of other suburbanites use Baltimore all the time. They come to the Inner Harbor and the National Aquarium. They come for the Orioles. They came in droves last fall to see the Monet exhibit at the BMA. They come for the restaurants, the zoo, the Walters, the symphony. And, most important of all, about 200,000 of them drive here every day to go to work. According to a survey by the Greater Baltimore Committee, the city provides about 40 percent of the metropolitan region's private-sector jobs. People who sleep in suburbia have a stake in Baltimore's future.

So there's an argument here. But Kurt Schmoke isn't making it.

The mayor said he was ready to close schools for a week, but bowed to pressure not to do so. Sure, he momentarily focused public attention on the city's fiscal crisis, but did he change attitudes? Did he light fires under the butts of the politicians in Annapolis who yawn at pleas for more aid to the city? All he did was make a joke out of "The City That Reads."

The mayor said he was going to close branches of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. What emerged, when all was said and done, was a plan to have community activists, students and volunteers keep open the branches that were slated to be closed. That, everyone agrees, was better than having them close. But if the intention of Schmoke's high-profile gambit was to garner support for more funding for the city, forget it. It was a failure.

Now he has bowed to pressure on the arts funding. He got lots of letters from people who want the city to continue funding the museums. "I was surprised," Schmoke said, "that many of the letters failed to appreciate the financial circumstances that led [to the] issue in the first place." Gee, they just didn't get his message. I wonder why.

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