The Customer Is Always Right

July 02, 1995

Unless the next mayor of Baltimore wants to preside over the city's continuing decline, he or she has to recognize a basic fact of life: The customer is always right.

In selecting their domiciles, metropolitan area residents have plenty of choices. Baltimore's failure to recognize this -- and aggressively compete for taxpayers -- is one key reason why so many residents have voted with their feet and the city today has 250,000 fewer residents than it had 40 years ago. The drop in employment has been so drastic that 65,000 jobs have been lost just since 1989. At this rate, the city will share the fate of businesses that fail because they don't give a damn about their customers.

Baltimore's next mayor needs to institute a totally new and different culture throughout the municipal bureaucracy. He or she has to make it plain that taxpayers' complaints are not meaningless and that city workers are here to serve residents. Those who cannot accept this fact should find employment elsewhere.

Many Baltimoreans have left rather than accept the high costs of city living. The property tax rate is more than double that of the surrounding counties, and exorbitant automobile insurance rates constitute an additional tax. Schools are inadequate. Crime and grime are problems.

Yet those major problems often are not the reasons why families decide to move out of Baltimore. They leave because they are confronted with an irritant -- having their car stolen or having to tolerate a neighbor honking a horn or playing loud music at all hours -- and their complaints to the authorities do not produce an urgent and satisfactory response. Official callousness leads even committed long-time residents to the realization that their tax dollars do not produce any value at all. That compels them to move.

Baltimore's next mayor must change this insensitivity and begin competing for customers with the more successful suburban counties.

For residents, this new attitude should mean prompt and courteous service. Chronic litterers of neighborhoods and sources of nuisances must be dealt with, firmly and with results.

For institutions and companies, this new attitude must mean a realization on City Hall's part that a solid business climate creates more businesses and is good for Baltimore. The role of government should be to help businesses, not impede them. Antiquated permit rules and requirements should be simplified, the attendant red tape eliminated. Getting approvals should not be a challenge but a routine matter at a one-stop shop.

Whether dealing with individuals or institutions, the next mayor must recognize that prompt communication is a key to success. Thriving businesses know this. That this must even be pointed out shows the depth of Baltimore's problem.

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