In city budget process, a failure to communicate

Anthony J. Ambridge

July 07, 1993|By Anthony J. Ambridge

WHAT we have here is a failure to communicate." The line is from Paul Newman's 1967 movie, "Cool Hand Luke." Recent events at City Hall would lead one to conclude that the corporate partners of Baltimore City -- the mayor and City Council -- have a similar problem.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and his staff created a $2.2 billion budget, including general city revenue, state and federal funds. Accompanying legislation was introduced by the mayor to increase the city's piggyback tax 4 percent, this revenue to be earmarked for additional police. The council, which previously had rejected a 10 percent piggyback tax increase, indicated little support.

Sharing the mayor's concern for public safety, the council sought a different source of revenue. Realizing the city had overcontributed $12 million to the fire and police pension fund, the council amended the budget's enabling ordinance to reduce the contribution to the fund by 1 percent. This would have generated about the same revenue as the proposed piggyback tax increase.

Sound clean and simple? It wasn't. Previous conversations with the mayor and the director of finance left many council members believing they would concur with the council's proposal, so we moved forward. However, three days after adoption of this bill, and after countless hearings, the council discovered that Mr. Schmoke opposed our recommendations, vowing to veto our bill because of a provision increasing benefits to widows and orphans.

In budget matters, the City Council has consistently supported tax reductions. Having reduced the property tax rate 10 cents since 1990, capping annual increases at 4 percent and refusing increases in the piggyback rate, we've saved the typical homeowner $900 over four years.

But with all this, when the council passed its budget, reducing the property tax another nickel, the mayor said, "I did not know the council wanted a rate reduction." Amazingly, no one had told him our intentions, presuming he would realize them. Wrong again. The mayor vetoed the budget.

In his veto message, Mr. Schmoke said, "The bill [the council's budget] failed to adequately provide for matters of public safety." This statement, however, was wrong, as no money was removed by the council from the mayor's public safety budget. In fact, the council's collective actions provided more money for police than was requested.

With three days remaining in the fiscal year, Mr. Schmoke introduced a new budget. After much cajoling -- and because he communicated more in three days than he had in the previous three months -- the mayor got a budget, one without a tax decrease and with fewer new police officers than anticipated.

We could have done better. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf recently said, "We lost the Vietnam War because we never had a clear goal." That's what was lacking in the city budgeting process -- that and communications, the interchange of thoughts and information.

Just as the choir sings best when everyone uses the same hymnal, so must the leaders of Baltimore work together with the same book. Otherwise, the city will stagnate and die.

Anthony J. Ambridge represents the 2nd District in the City Council.

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