City Council's Penny-Foolish Budget

June 19, 1993

Unlike William Donald Schaefer, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has never been able to control the Baltimore City Council.

During the past five years, council members have learned that doing favors for Mr. Schmoke wins them no advantages; conversely, double-crossing the mayor does not incur any lasting wrath. Consequently, the council majority usually tends to disregard the mayor, taking its cues from Council President Mary Pat Clarke instead.

Yet seldom before has the council treated the mayor as cavalierly as in the budget deal it hammered out Thursday. It simply ignored Mr. Schmoke's proposal that would have increased the piggyback income tax to pay for 120 additional police officers. Instead, the council nimbly juggled capital expenditure accounts and manufactured a 5-cent cut in the city's property tax rate.

The council will no doubt win plaudits for its action from those who have long advocated a gradual reduction in the city's astronomical property tax rate, which is twice as high as anywhere else in Maryland. But public testimony earlier this month showed lower-tax proponents realize that a lighter burden on homeowners and businesses is only part of the equation. The other part is to get more police presence on Baltimore streets.

By disregarding the widespread concern for safety, the City Council opted for a budget solution that is likely to turn out to be penny-foolish. What use is a $20 one-time property tax saving for a typical homeowner if the city lacks adequate police protection?

Indeed, if the choice of lower taxes or more police had been put to ordinary Baltimoreans, there is little doubt that beefed-up law enforcement would have won. With trash pickup and water service, security is the most elemental function of a municipal government.

This less-than-satisfactory budget outcome is a reflection of Mr. nTC Schmoke's failure as a local political leader. Unlike truly successful deal-maker mayors, he does not get personally involved in pushing legislation. But neither does he have skillful lobbyists -- or an aggressive floor leader in the council. As a result, Schmoke proposals either sail through, wander listlessly or sink.

The police staffing situation cried for Mr. Schmoke's personal involvement and leadership because the council never got over its shock at finding that the supposedly cash-poor police department had, in fact, developed an unused surplus. Council members could have been persuaded to vote for more money for police. But they simply did not have faith that the mayor or the police commissioner would spend the funds properly.

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