Baltimore in Decline

June 04, 1995

Whoever is elected mayor of Baltimore must deal with a city declining in population, wealth and political power in absolute terms and relative to the rest of Maryland. Managing resources -- playing the hand dealt -- is the greatest challenge. The city

payroll must go down as population and resources diminish. Otherwise, services will suffer.

This is what the elections for all city offices this year are about. Today and on coming weekends, the editorial column will examine the conundrum facing Baltimore, in hopes of helping city voters evaluate candidates.

The decline is not new. Baltimore City's population was 30 percent of Maryland's in 1960 and only 15 percent in 1990. The city's population was 44 percent of the metropolitan area in 1970 and 31 percent in 1990. The city's assessed valuation was 37 percent of the area's in 1970 and 20 percent in 1990. Its median household income was 76 percent of the area's in 1970, and 65 percent in 1990.

vTC The trend was palpably visible during former Mayor William Donald Schaefer's long tenure. Nor is Baltimore alone. All over America, city governments are not masters of their fate, Washington being merely the most extreme example. An effective City Hall will maximize cooperation with state and federal counterparts.

Once Baltimore was the unquestioned capital, cultural center and wealth producer for the state. City Hall was in effect the metropolitan government. It built and still operates the Baltimore Museum of Art and metropolitan water and sewer systems. It built a great regional airport in Anne Arundel County. It is still the magnet for Marylanders' attention (how 'bout them Os?)

But for years, the city alone has been unable to manage. Elsewhere, cities tried some version of metropolitan government, New York way back in 1898, Miami and Indianapolis more recently. Cities in the Southwest retain the right to annex suburbs. Cleveland and Chicago are within large counties providing services.

Greater Baltimore never tried the metropolitan route. Here, the state (particularly the Department of Transportation) succeeded the city as the true if unadmitted metropolitan government. When the city could no longer develop the airport, the state bought it. When private port management proved inadequate, the Maryland Port Administration was born. When the local bus company determined to expire, the state created the Mass Transit Administration. The Maryland Transportation Authority operates the bridge and tunnels crossing Baltimore Harbor. Such interventions are resented elsewhere and harder to obtain as the city's share of state political power recedes.

City politicians may denounce each other for failing to reverse this nationwide trend. That means nothing. Voters must decide which of them can best cope with it.

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