Saving the Pratt is a regional job

John T. Starr

March 20, 1992|By John T. Starr

IT WAS heartening to read the other day that Sen. Julian Lapides proposes to ease the financial crisis that threatens eight branches of the Pratt Library when funding runs out in June. He is calling for a referendum in the city in which voters would be asked to agree to a 10-cent increase in their property taxes to raise $8 million for the Pratt.

But while the senator is to be commended for his concern, his approach seems inappropriate. There are two things wrong with it.

First, there is, of course, no assurance that such a referendum would pass, particularly if it lacked the steadfast support of Mayor Schmoke. And the mayor is opposed to the Lapides approach on the grounds that any increase in the city's property taxes would push more people to the suburbs.

The second flaw is that only city residents would bear the burden of the Pratt rescue. This is unfair, just as it is unfair to expect city residents to pay almost all of the cost of operating museums, the Baltimore Zoo and other cultural institutions.

There is a better way. We have an opportunity to develop a regional solution -- one in which those who benefit from the Pratt share its costs. Clearly, use of the library is not limited to city residents, nor should it be. For many years, the Pratt has extended reciprocal privileges to other public libraries in the region. The county libraries, in turn, honor the Pratt library card.

My wife tells of the many times she took the bus in from Baltimore County to Pratt Central to do research for papers when she was a high school and college student. My students at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, a research university with a woefully underfunded library, often resort to the Pratt to use materials found in no other public library in the region.

Isn't it time to admit that an institution like the Pratt -- which happens to be located in Baltimore -- serves all the region's people? Many public services, such as water and sewage systems, are financed jointly by city and counties. And many cultural resources, such as museums and the zoo, are supported in part by the suburban jurisdictions. But in this time of deep recession, the counties are reducing their financial contribution, and the city remains largely alone in meeting budgets.

Short of significant increases in state aid, which appear unlikely in the near future, a regional solution seems appropriate. Such a solution could ease the Pratt's short-term financial woes while setting an example for future long-term solutions to regional problems.

If the vehicle to raise the necessary funds is the property tax, why not increase it regionally, rather than only in Baltimore? If Senator Lapides' proposed city increase of 10 cents -- the amount required to keep the Pratt functioning as we have known it -- were spread across the region, it would generate sufficient funds to restore many services that have been cut or reduced in past years.

If we all shared in the solution, the property tax increase to address the senator's immediate concerns would probably amount to less than a nickel.

John T. Starr is a member of the geography faculty at UMBC.

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