An election year poverty parade

March 10, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

TWO recent newspaper headlines tell it all:

"Schmoke shows candidate Boergers some of the worst his city has to offer," said The Evening Sun.

"Montgomery Gives Hardship the Hard Sell," said the Washington Post.

All of a sudden parading poverty is smart politics, not only in Annapolis but in the campaign for governor as well.

Mayor Kurt Schmoke showcases the spreading squalor of East Baltimore, while the good burghers of Montgomery County escort members of the House Appropriations Committee through the smudged ruins of Silver Spring.

In the annual battle for boodle, the dark side of Maryland is on display. Montgomery County needs money for schools and roads and Baltimore needs money for, well, just about everything.

The xenophobic regional tug-of-war continues.

(As far as it goes, that is. Before we do something wild and crazy like underwriting quality education for Maryland's kids and decent housing for the poor, there is the urgent matter of sports palaces -- a new publicly-funded arena for Abe Pollin and his underachieveing basketball and hockey teams, a municipally resuscitated Memorial Stadium for Jim Speros' CFL Colts and a new football stadium in Baltimore for a team yet to materialize.)

Baltimore has far and away the best bad news; in fact, it's a horror story. Begin at the beginning: 2.4 million square feet of vacant commercial office space in downtown Baltimore. One building owner recently had to reduce rent by $11 a square foot just to retain a prime tenant.

Things are tough in the residential real estate market, too, so tough that Mr. Schmoke tried to win a back-door property tax break for condo buyers at HarborView, where units cost $161,000 to $1.7 million.

While other states and cities are reducing hotel room taxes to lure business, the Schmoke administration is considering increasing the city's 12 percent nightly room tax to 16.3 percent -- one of the highest in the world.

The Brokerage, the Fish Market and the Power Plant are all bankrupt, just the more notable real estate failures of William Donald Schaefer's razzmatazz years as mayor.

There are about 7,000 vacant and boarded-up houses in the city. Combined, they comprise the Baltimore that H. L. Mencken called "the ruins of a once-great medieval city."

The city itself is a jarring jumble of numbers. It has the third highest murder rate in the country after the District of Columbia and Detroit.

The city also claims one of the nation's highest teen-age pregnancy and infant mortality rates.

And the city has dropped from sixth to 22nd in a ranking of population. Baltimore's school dropout rate is right down there with the worst of them. In fact, it was a matter of public boasting by school officials last September when only 2,500 of the district's 110,000 students were reported truant on opening day.

Finally, the city's property tax rate is the highest in the state, double that of most other jurisdictions.

Match that, Montgomery!

Well, it tries. Montgomery has lots of wealthy people and the largest concentration of Ph.Ds in the world.

But in some ways it resembles a polyglot Third World nation.

Fully 18 percent of Montgomery's residents are foreign-born; 6,400 students speak a language other than English.

Ten thousand families are seeking housing assistance and 82 percent of these have incomes below $20,000 in a county where the median household income is $60,586, the second highest in the nation.

And in a county that used to be primarily residential, there are 21,000 small businesses, many of them family-owned ethnic restaurants.

For any numbers junkie who's still not satisfied, it's tough even for uppity Montgomery County to top Baltimore. In the game of "Can You Bottom This," Baltimore's a tough act to follow.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes a regular column on Maryland politics. His column appears every Thursday on this page.

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