Schmoke's No-Frills Budget

April 14, 1994

All things considered, Baltimore has emerged relatively unscathed from the deep recession of the past several years. The worst may not be over, however. Falling housing prices and veritable fire sales of empty downtown office buildings have created a situation in which the city's property tax base is likely to dip further or at best remain stagnant for the next several years. While Maryland's overall economy may be improving, the city's will continue to plod along.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has responded to this reality by proposing a no-frills $2.2 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. He wants to hire 80 more police officers and 81 additional teachers. But beyond that, the budget calls for belt-tightening. No cost-of-living raises for municipal employees; no relief for homeowners in the property tax rate that is by far the highest in the state.

The City Council will now do its tinkering. Because council members face re-election next year, they want to produce a cosmetic cut in the current property tax rate of $5.90 per each $100 of assessed value. Interestingly, Mr. Schmoke shared this desire early in the budget process but came to realize that no tax cut was possible because of the bleak revenue picture.

As it has for the past four decades, Baltimore City continues to lose about 5,000 residents a year to the suburbs. Different people give different reasons for their move, but most are middle-class families; among reasons most often cited are lower taxes and the perception that safety and public schools are better outside the city.

Realistically speaking, Baltimore can do little about its high tax rate. But the municipal government can -- and should -- attack more aggressively the factors contributing to bad feelings about the city: crime and disorderly or threatening public behavior, trash, noise and various housing code violations.

We think the Schmoke budget proposal is correct in trying to beef up staffing in the police force and public schools. This emphasis is particularly important now that a new police commissioner, Thomas C. Frazier, is conducting a long-overdue overhaul of patrol practices and priorities and Superintendent Walter G. Amprey is trying to sort out the school system's many bureaucratic problems.

The property tax rate in Baltimore is high. But that situation would be more tolerable if homeowners felt that they were at least getting a safe and clean environment for their money.

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