At Steve Bongiovani's tidy produce stand, the lettuce is crisp, the cherry tomatoes sweet and the strawberries fresh. His spirits, however, are wilting.
A third-generation grocer at Baltimore's Cross Street Market, Mr. Bongiovani cherishes the tradition and independence of his business but fears he could not survive substantial rent increases proposed by the city at a time when, according to the merchants, the daily flow of customers is dwindling.
He is one of scores of merchants from the city's six municipal markets who plan to protest a rent restructuring that is expected to be considered by the Board of Estimates this morning.
Many butchers, grocers and merchants who sell staple goods say the cost of the restructuring and rent increase would be significantly higher for them than for fast-food operators.
"How much more squeezing can we take till we'll be out of business?" said Mr. Bongiovani, 37.
The agency that runs Baltimore's neighborhood markets has proposed raising rents across the board from $11.40 a square foot to $12.
The merchants, who object to any rent increase, are particularly upset by a companion proposal to drop all special fees charged to fast-food and specialty stands.
Under the rent plan, all merchants would be required to pay the same "direct assessment" fees to help reduce the city's subsidy of the markets.
The rent for the stall run by John Langenfelder, a butcher at Cross Street Market, would jump by 25 percent under the plan. Meanwhile, Sheldon Zayon, who sells fried chicken a few feet away, faces a negligible rent increase.
"I just don't think it's good for the market," Mr. Zayon said. "Business is off here. If this were a private landlord and not the city, we'd be asking for a rent reduction."
A lawyer for the merchants, David Borinsky, has calculated that the rent would increase 23.9 percent to 58.5 percent for the butchers and grocers. Fast-food operators face increases of less than 1 percent to 8.9 percent, except at Lafayette Market, where their rent would jump by 33 percent, he said.
"It is irrational," Mr. Borinsky said, arguing that the city should continue a tiered rent system that forces businesses with the highest maintenance costs to pay the most.
He noted that the proposal comes at a time when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is considering whether to privatize the management of the markets. The Schmoke administration also has requested proposals from consulting companies to study whether the markets can survive into the 21st century.
Mr. Schmoke has said he wants to scale back the city's annual $700,000 subsidy for the markets. The long-term objective is to make the markets self-sustaining, but that cannot be achieved overnight without a hefty rent increase, Budget Director Edward Gallagher said.
This is the second time in a little more than a year that the merchants have protested rent increases at the markets. In late 1992, the city proposed an increase that some merchants said would nearly double their rents. Mr. Schmoke later reduced the increase.