A city without leadership

April 21, 1996|By BARRY RASCOVAR

MARYLAND'S largest city is in trouble. Big trouble. It is getting poorer and poorer, just as support from Washington and Annapolis is diminishing. Its dysfunctional leaders are bereft of new ideas. Anyone who has the financial wherewithal is moving out. If this city could declare Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it would.

Nothing is more symbolic of the city's sad plight than the actions of Baltimore's three elected citywide officials.

Comptroller Joan Pratt seems intent on turning her office into a den of cronies and political campaign staffers. Not only is she shockingly ignorant of the workings of city government, the comptroller has a tin ear when it comes to ethics in government.

Meanwhile, Council President Lawrence Bell entered office with a one-track mind: oppose Kurt Schmoke. He always finds some way to differ with the mayor and to engage in kamikaze missions to undermine the Schmoke administration. This isn't constructive criticism, either. The sole intent is to pave the way for a Bell-for-mayor race in three years.

Then there's the mayor himself. What a tragedy. As bright and as well-meaning and as likable as he is, Kurt Schmoke can't run this city. He's been trying for nine years and the burden has worn him down.

He can't bring himself to hire top-flight managers and aides who could crack the whip. He can't bring himself to slash government expenses as so many county executives have done. And he can't even bring himself to ask for help from local business leaders, who could provide expertise and solid advice on how to make government smaller, more efficient and affordable.

A non-player

The mayor's embarrassing efforts in Annapolis during the General Assembly session illustrate how weak he's become. On the stadium issue, he was a non-player -- though it meant a $200 million construction project in the city. On the schools issue, he got penalized. His last-minute flip-flop on slot-machine legalization was ignored. On convention-center funding, his solution was slapped down. Even senior members of the city delegation turned on him this session, frustrated by his lack of accountability and leadership.

Now comes the mayor's solution to Baltimore's most recent budget dilemma: raise taxes. No effort to downsize and privatize, as other governments have done. No effort to create a partnership with local businesses to improve government operation. No effort to dramatically improve the prospects for more companies moving to Baltimore.

No, Mr. Schmoke's answer was both lame and predictable. Raise the piggyback income tax. No matter that this will drive more middle-class families from Baltimore. No matter that it sends the wrong message to business. No matter that the fundamental problem -- Baltimore's government is far too large for a city of 691,000 -- hasn't been addressed.

And in a truly bizarre twist, the mayor blamed his proposed tax increase on the failure of the slot-machine bill to pass the legislature. Pure buncombe.

Everyone in Annapolis knew that bill never had a chance. It wasn't even introduced till late in the session. Besides, the mayor was unalterably opposed to casino and slots gambling in Baltimore, until it served his purpose to reverse course in March.

You can already see the writing on the wall. Next year, the mayor will base his budget on oodles of money from slot machines. He's no longer worried about the morality of these gambling operations in the city, or near the Inner Harbor. He's not worried about the headaches for a police department already stretched to the limit by Baltimore's drug and crime problems.

No, he only sees millions of dollars rolling in to keep Baltimore's bloated and inefficient -- and often inept -- government afloat.

Of course, if the slots never materialize, he's up the budget creek without a fiscal paddle. But what the heck, it's only the viability of the city that's at stake.

Yes, this is a sorry situation. Baltimore's predicament is distressing. The most alarming thing of all is that those who should be providing strong, enlightened and energetic leadership have failed to do so.

If this city is to be saved, the impetus will have to come from outside government. Our current leaders aren't up to the challenge.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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