Can Baltimore Use Clinton's Aid?

February 06, 1993

After years of neglect and deterioration, Baltimore and many other American big cities are in much the same social and economic predicament as Third World countries. They have a thin layer of wealthy residents but poverty dominates.

As "foreign aid" (from Washington and state capitals) and local tax bases have been drying up, services have been cut, personnel fired and citizens left in the lurch. The question now is whether the nation's cities are any better equipped than Third World countries to handle the resumed flow of federal aid President Clinton promised yesterday.

This is a dilemma familiar to many world development experts: even the most generous amounts of aid dollars buy precious little unless the money is efficiently and imaginatively managed locally for worthwhile projects. The problem is not of any lack of good intentions but of weak leadership, poor implementation and wobbly infrastructure.

Even before President Clinton's promise of added aid to the nation's cities, Baltimore had more federal development money than the Schmoke administration could put to good use. As Joan Jacobson reported in The Sun yesterday, an unbelievable $52 million in federal money is sitting in the housing department coffers, while city bureaucrats cry poverty and let dwelling units sink below levels fit for human habitation. People suffer.

Housing Commissioner Robert W. Hearn asserted at a news conference yesterday that this situation has "nothing to do with my ability to manage once you put all this in proper context." But clearly it does, notwithstanding many alleviating circumstances, such as severe staff cuts over the past several years, impossibly contradictory federal guidelines and sociological breakdown.

When virtually every area of responsibility in Mr. Hearn's dual portfolio as housing commissioner and Housing Authority director is in disarray, then something demonstrably is amiss. How many additional cases of documented mismanagement and ineptitude will Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke need before he is persuaded that it is time to restructure the housing department?

As in many Third World countries, a pernicious thinking persists among City Hall decision-makers that an outside aid-giver can somehow solve Baltimore's problems. Yes, Washington and Annapolis can increase aid to the city (if they so desire) but they have little influence over how that aid is used. Neither can they readily monitor whether such money produces desired results.

President Clinton's promise of more aid to deal with the serious conditions in the nation's cities requires urban centers to be sure the money is not squandered in inefficiency and incompetence.

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