Schmoke Hangs Tough on the Budget

June 28, 1993

It's been eons since a Baltimore mayor vetoed a budget bill. So Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke did the unthinkable last week by rejecting a $2 billion budget that, in effect, stripped funds for more police officers to grant long-suffering homeowners a 5-cent cut on the property tax rate.

It was a tough call, but the situation cried out for discipline. Despite City Council Council President Mary Pat Clarke's bluster about an override vote, this veto will stick. Since council members couldn't seem to get the city's priorities straight on their own, the mayor had to do it for them.

The nickel cut in the property tax rate would have saved the average homeowner $20 on his or her annual tax bill. But that benefit has to be balanced against the city's No. 1 quality-of-life issue, which is ensuring that the streets are safe. Public order is government's first responsibility; if people can't feel secure in their own neighborhoods, no amount of tax-cutting is going to persuade them the city is a good place to live.

The mayor recognized that some trade-offs aren't worth making. City police are already understaffed and overstretched. Mr. Schmoke wants to expand community policing to more neighborhoods, put more officers on foot patrol and beef up the department's ability to prevent crime and catch criminals. But the department must have the resources to do the job right.

Over the last 30 years, Baltimore's economy has moved from industrial to service businesses. Meanwhile, federal assistance has declined dramatically and the city's tax base has steadily shrunk.

These transformations all add up to rapid social change, a tumultuous, disruptive process that inevitably spawns a host of social ills. Too often, law enforcement ends up alone on the front lines to cope with the messy consequences. It wouldn't be so in a perfect world, but this one isn't.

No one disputes the need for further tax cuts. Mayor Schmoke has already approved two property tax cuts and proposes slicing another nickel off the rate next year. High taxes drag the economy, sap the enthusiasm of young families who want to stay in the city and burden elderly people living on fixed incomes. But first things first: Make the streets safe. Until that happens, all the talk of tax cuts and rebates is so much grandstanding demagogy.

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