Don't Forget the City

March 23, 1992

So far in the General Assembly debate over taxes, there has been no public discussion of the needs of the state's poorest subdivisions, especially Baltimore City. Yet any tax-and-spending plan that doesn't attempt to give the city and its poor rural cousins a substantial assist could run into serious -- and deserved -- opposition.

In this recession, all subdivisions are hurting. They have been forced to cut back on services and will face even bigger revenue shortfalls in the coming fiscal year. That's nothing new for Baltimore City, though, which has been in a recession-mode for the past four years. Growth in non-education spending during that time has been a meager 1 percent. In effect, the city has had to starve some of its service agencies to make ends meet.

The city deserves special consideration because of the inordinate burden it must shoulder. The vast majority of the state's poor reside in Baltimore: 75 percent of the general public assistance clients, 52 percent of the welfare caseload and 85 percent of the AIDS cases. At the same time, the city's tax base is weakening as more middle-class families move to the counties. Baltimore requires more state assistance to serve the needy.

City residents already are taxed more heavily than any others in Maryland. It is time for the state to offer a helping hand. Yet so far, legislators have shown little eagerness to do so. Instead, lawmakers seem intent on pumping most of the new revenue into the rich counties. That's not right.

In order to balance the state budget this year, legislators intend to cut $272 million from local government aid. To compensate, they want to give the subdivisions permission to raise the local piggyback income tax by 10 percent. If all jurisdictions did so, this would raise $412 million in the coming fiscal year. The net result, though, would be to enrich the wealthiest jurisdictions while giving the city the back of the hand.

Montgomery County, for instance, would be a net winner by $50 million; Baltimore County would be ahead by $34 million. But the city? It would lose $1 million after all the reductions in aid are factored in. The only new money for the city would come from education aid. The rest of city government would walk away from Annapolis poorer than any of the better-off counties.

Some legislative leaders are trying to help. They are offering a "disparity grant" to give extra money to the six poorest subdivisions -- Somerset, Garrett, Allegany, Dorchester and Caroline counties, plus Baltimore City. But so far, that would only give the city an extra $24 million.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have an obligation to do more for those who depend on the city for help. Over the next two weeks, they should exert their considerable influence to broaden the payments directed at the poorest subdivisions. The need is great, and only Annapolis can deliver enough financial support to make a difference.

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