Why Baltimore Needed to Hit Back at the Counties

BARRY RASCOVER

May 23, 1993|By BARRY RASCOVAR

This month's Courage in Politics Award goes to Baltimore County Councilman Douglas Riley, who had the audacity to tell the truth at a recent budget work session. For his honesty, he was criticized by colleagues and probably harangued by constituents.

In a nutshell, he said the county was ripping off the city by starving the area's cultural institutions. Under County Executive Roger Hayden, Baltimore County's contributions to area arts have steadily dwindled. It's an embarrassment, which is exactly how Mr. Riley described it.

The city, one step away from the poorhouse, manages to scrape up $7 million for the arts. But Baltimore County, a growing and affluent subdivision, can only find a paltry $912,361 for this purpose. Yet at most city art and culture sites, county residents outnumber city patrons.

In essence, Baltimore County residents get what amounts to a free ride: The city picks up the lion's share of the tab but the county's citizens reap the benefits. Taxes remain low in the county while the city shoulders the tax burden for their country cousins.

Look at the situation at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It receives $2.8 million in assistance from Baltimore City and a skimpy $97,650 from Baltimore County. The city is giving the BMA 28 times more in financial support than the county. And yet more county residents (165,000) visit the BMA than city folks (150,000).

Is this fair? Absolutely not. Fairness would dictate a whopping increase in the county's level of support for arts and culture venues frequented by county residents. In the BMA's case, the rise would be in the neighborhood of $3 million.

No wonder Mr. Riley said he was "distressed, distraught and upset that we're giving so very little to the city" cultural institutions. The counties refuse to pay their fair share.

Baltimore County isn't alone, though. Take the situation in Anne Arundel County. County Executive Robert R. Neall, like Mr. Hayden, talks a good game of regional cooperation. But when it comes to putting fiscal muscle behind his words, Mr. Neall beats a retreat. He proposes giving Baltimore-area culture groups no money this year. Not a cent. How's that for a helping hand?

Let's face it: If a suburbanite wants a dose of culture, he or she won't find it at the local shopping mall. All the top-caliber theaters, museums and galleries are in the city. Suburban patrons flock to them, but their governments won't pay for the upkeep.

That's why the crocodile tears shed by county politicos over the city's new residency requirement are so hypocritical. The counties continue to bleed the city of taxpaying residents even as they play Scrooge with financial aid.

Admittedly, the residency requirement for new city government employees is a small step. It probably will mean $5 million in new taxes for the city and an equivalent loss in surrounding counties. Down the road, that figure will grow.

If Mr. Hayden and his fellow county executives were paying an equitable share for city cultural institutions and were truly

committed to regionalism, no residency requirement would be needed. The city's fiscal squeeze would be eased. But that's not the case. If it means digging into their own pockets, county leaders won't hear of it.

So perhaps Mayor Kurt Schmoke had little choice. His residency rule is a repugnant policy, but suburban county leaders certainly haven't been cooperative in coming up with alternative solutions.

It may be time for the mayor to take a tougher line with the counties. Why should the city shell out $7 million for the arts so county residents can enjoy most of the benefits?

Here's one way to send a message: Impose a sliding surcharge '' on all arts admissions based on a person's residence. If your county supports the arts fully, as does the city, you get in without paying an extra fee. If your county pulls a Roger Hayden, you pay more for your arts ticket, say $1 or $2. And if your county pulls a Bobby Neall, you get hit hard -- a ticket surcharge of $3 or $4, depending on the event.

County residents would be paying a more proportionate share of the culture budgets. And perhaps patrons forced to pay these surcharges would start shouting at their county executive and council members to stop acting like cheapskates.

Many of this area's problems could be eased if we had true regionalism that broke down the artificial barriers suburban politicians have erected. For instance, how naive and insanely expensive it is to require that each jurisdiction come up with its own waste-disposal solutions. It would be far cheaper and far more efficient to handle this growing headache on a regional basis.

But that would take real courage by our suburban officials. Doug Riley showed such conviction in Towson on the culture issue, but he's an exception. The attitudes of county leaders have become part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director for The Sun.

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