Getting out of the hole

April 28, 1996|By Barry Rascovar

BALTIMORE IS in desperate shape, as was noted here last Sunday. That column generated considerable feedback, but people kept asking, ''How do we get out of this hole?''

Yes, city government is too large, inefficient and/or inept. Yes, the schools are failing their students, crime is taking over too many Baltimore streets and City Hall seems paralyzed by the magnitude of it all.

Mayor Kurt Schmoke's call for a 10 percent rise in the piggyback income tax won't end the crisis. It is a stop-gap effort to offset the phase-out of the city's container tax and three years of politically inspired property-tax cuts.

Meanwhile, city revenue is drying up. Most alarming is the drop in total dollars from both the property tax and the income tax. Baltimore is getting smaller in population (44,000 folks bailed out in the last five years) and poorer.

Somehow, this city has to learn to do more with less, to find new ways of doing things. Instead of a Cadillac, we have to get used to driving a Geo; eat chicken instead of steak; shop at discount malls instead of department stores.

First, the mayor has to recognize the dire situation -- or community and private-sector groups have to force him to face the truth.

This isn't an ordinary budget dilemma. It is a permanent condition. Only a fundamental shift in addressing these problems can lead to lasting changes. The mayor is best-positioned to do it.

Now in his third term, Mr. Schmoke has nothing to lose and much to gain by throwing caution to the wind. He needs to get creative and put the full weight of his office behind these efforts.

He should study the surrounding counties. Harford, Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties have been aggressively pruning or eliminating government services, trimming staff and seeking partnerships with the private sector. County executives have been courageous in taking the heat. They have made tough management decisions.

Mr. Schmoke must do the same, with the support of business leaders, church groups and community organizations. He must build consensus around a smaller, more focused local government. If he fails to do so, neighborhood and business groups should press him to set priorities all can agree upon.

The money problem could be remedied to a large degree by cutting 5,000 city jobs over three years from the existing payroll of 26,000. That equates to some $150 million in budget savings annually -- enough to fortify the schools, bolster law enforcement, invest in modern technology to increase government's efficiency and still have money to lower the property tax rate by at least $1.

Beyond cutting jobs, Mr. Schmoke should ask the city's big accounting firms for pro-bono management and performance audits of all city agencies -- and he should commit to implementing their recommended changes. The bureaucracy is far too big for a shrinking city whose population could drop below 650,000 by 2000.

Service partnerships

The mayor should seek partnerships for city services -- city-county library branches, for instance, or rec centers run by the quasi-public municipal golf corporation. Local colleges, an untapped resource, should be asked to suggest ways they might become involved in running city programs. Churches should be asked to provide volunteers to man certain city offices.

Privatization has to be taken seriously. From office cleaning to snow removal and road repair, it might be cheaper and more effective to use private companies.

Business leaders should be invited to participate in solving specific problems within government -- but only if the mayor will pledge to support their plans. Unleashing the business community is perhaps the best step Mr. Schmoke could take.

He should also impose more user fees. It's only fair: People who use non-essential services should pay something for the privilege.

And finally, raise the income-tax rate another 10 percent, to the maximum under state law. That sounds contradictory, but it's not -- if you use every penny to lower the property-tax rate. After all, it is the city's near-$6 property-tax rate that is severely out of kilter with the suburbs, not the income-tax rate. That's the disparity Mr. Schmoke must start to close.

With all these initiatives, a picture might emerge of what Baltimore intends to become in the next decade. Mr. Schmoke has to get the city beyond the crisis-management stage. The best way for him to do that is to open his mind to a creative partnership with the businesses, churches, non-profit groups and neighborhoods of this city and region.

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

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