The mayor's budget veto

June 23, 1993

Mayor Schmoke was right to veto the $2 billion 1994 budget approved by the City Council, which traded a 5-cent reduction in the city property tax rate for money needed to fund additional police officers. The mayor has said all along that the additional officers are essential to law enforcement efforts in the city. The council seems more intent on grandstanding than on making sure the streets are safe. Vetoing a budget is a tough call, but at least the mayor has his priorities straight.

No one disputes the desirability of granting tax relief for city homeowners. City taxes are the highest in the state and nearly twice that of the surrounding jurisdictions. Among other things, high city taxes depress local property values, discourage young families from remaining in the city and impose an onerous burden on older homeowners living on fixed incomes.

The council knows the fiscal realities of such trade-offs as well as the mayor. In recent years Baltimore has downsized the municipal work force, consolidated agencies and streamlined local government to meet the crisis precipitated by the massive withdrawal of federal assistance to the cities during the Reagan-Bush years. Though the process has been painful, Baltimore's early restraint has left it far better off today than Washington, D.C., which now faces the prospect of laying off thousands of city workers, firing teachers and closing schools.

Nor has Baltimore become a pitiable economic basket case like Newark, N.J., or Hartford, Conn. Its economy has been restructured onto a path of slow but steady growth, downtown redevelopment continues apace and area arts and educational institutions contribute to a varied and vibrant cultural scene.

As Baltimore moves toward mid-decade, the city clearly is on the right track, but economic development will be for naught if the government can't ensure the safety of its citizens. Hard times also produce massive social ills that, at least in the short run, put police and law enforcement agencies on the front lines of managing change.

Community policing, more foot patrols and other reforms contemplated by the mayor can be effective only if the department has the manpower to do the job right.

Mayor Schmoke is as eager to reduce the city tax burden as the council. He noted that he has twice approved property tax cuts during his six years in office and that he has proposed a further nickel reduction in the tax rate next year. But he shouldn't sacrifice a matter vital to public safety for the sake of a $20 reduction in the average property tax bill, and neither should homeowners.

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