Setting Spending Priorities

April 17, 1995

By proposing to hire 111 more police officers and 50 more teachers in his new $2.3 billion budget, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has set his election year priorities. The budget's 2.9 percent increase means not enough money to keep pace with inflation in most departments. Thirteen departments or funds are targeted for cuts totaling $23 million.

Some cuts are bound to generate resistance.

Particularly problematic are the cuts proposed for a variety of cultural uses. For example, Mr. Schmoke's budget includes a $264,686 reduction in funding for the Baltimore Museum of Art.

The museum received $3.2 million from the city this fiscal year and it had asked for about a $300,000 increase. The city's fiscal bind and the museum's needs make successful private fundraising even more important than in the past.

Overall belt-tightening is understandable. But the cuts the mayor proposes underline the necessity to re-create a regional funding mechanism for cultural institutions. For a brief period, such a mechanism existed. But after recession hit Maryland, metropolitan counties cut virtually all their aid to Baltimore-based institutions.

In some cases, departments won't have their allocations reduced, but the line-item amount is less than what they say they need to operate adequately. Even the $15.4 million increase in the city schools' proposed allocation shouldn't be considered a windfall. It's only about $1 million more than the $646 million the superintendent said he must have to tread water.

Mr. Schmoke prepared his budget mindful of the Sept. 12 primary election in which his bid for a third term is being challenged by City Council President Mary Pat Clarke. He is between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The city's revenues -- both the tax base and federal aid -- have been declining for several years. That calls for parsimony. But in trying to make the best of his precarious situation, he chose not to anticipate the impact of substantial cuts in federal funding that seem almost sure to come.

The election year is a perfect time to consider Baltimore's long-term budget priorities and financing options. As the City Council begins its review of the Schmoke proposal, it should forgo sniping and identify achievable alternatives.

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