For Baltimore County residents suffering from a civic inferiority complex, a milestone will be reached around the year 2000.
That's when, planners say, the county's population will outstrip Baltimore City's, ending 50 years of growth that has transformed the county from a rural horse collar around Baltimore's urban core to a bedroom for Baltimore commuters and finally to an entity that could qualify as a city in its own right.
But that growth has brought urban problems as well as benefits and, despite its population growth, the county is looking at serious economic problems and may wind up with less political clout than it ever had.
At its peak in 1950, the city boasted a population of 949,708, when the county had a mere 270,273 residents. Flight from the city during the '60s and '70s brought the two jurisdictions much closer by the 1990 census, when the city's population stood at 736,014 and the county's was 692,133.
By 2010, planners say, the city's population will decline to 698,000, while the county's will grow to 728,276.
The county's increasing population is not as city-oriented as it once was. In fact, by 1990 only one-third of county commuters worked in the city, according to Census Bureau figures. The rest worked in Baltimore County or the surrounding jurisdictions.
But the county's growth slowed considerably during the 1980s, and the demographic trends now have "tremendous implications," said Donald P. Hutchinson, the former Baltimore County executive who heads the private Maryland Business Council.
The county's main problems now, Mr. Hutchinson said, stem from the changing nature of its population. The largest growth has been at the oldest and youngest ends of the spectrum -- senior citizens and schoolchildren who require more services.
Baltimore County's overall population grew only 5 percent between 1980 and 1990, but the number of people 65 to 74 years old increased by 36 percent, and the number of children under 5 years old rose 32 percent.
With the exception of black families who moved out of the city during the 1980s and accounted for most of the county's population growth, the county is not attracting many young dTC homeowners. They are seeking cheaper housing in Carroll and Harford counties and even southern Pennsylvania.
This trend disturbs county leaders because the county's economic growth and personal income have stagnated, which translates into tax revenues that are hard-pressed to keep up with the demand for services. Older voters generally are less willing to support new taxes, and a 1990 tax revolt that ousted County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen and five of seven council incumbents has council members and state legislators worried.
"The county is going to have tremendous financial problems in the next 12 years. I'm not sure increased population helps that," Mr. Hutchinson said.
The city's problem, he said, will be to keep enough jobs home to preserve its economic viability. "The city must worry about maintaining an employment base," he said.
D.C. suburbs to be larger
The political implications of the changes for the next century are uncertain, officials say, and there are several forces at work.
By the millennium, Baltimore County and the city will be Maryland's third and fourth largest subdivisions, outstripped by the fast-growing Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and hemmed in by even faster growing counties farther away from both urban cores. Planners in those jurisdictions predict populations exceeding 800,000 each by the year 2000, with Montgomery nearing 900,000.
Baltimore County theoretically will have the population to wrest a legislative district away from Baltimore, reduce the sharing of legislative and congressional districts and emerge as a more powerful subdivision. The county currently has seven legislative districts of its own and one that it shares with Carroll County.
City legislators have protected their turf by extending five of their eight districts into the county, with county voters a distinct minority in each district into which they were placed. As a result, said Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the change caused by the county's added population is "not as dramatic as it could have been."
Stunned at the thought of her city being smaller than the county, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke put it more bluntly. "The city's still the city -- it's cohesive." The county's neighborhoods tend to be associated with the city neighborhoods they border, she said, adding, "The county is an extension of the city."
While Democrats have a 2 1/2 -to-1 registration edge in the county, redistricting has caused many of those voters to be lost to county Democratic legislative candidates. As a result, some Republican county legislators think the change will help their party, particularly if city Democrats continue raiding close-in county areas for Democratic voters.