'Crisis' didn't excite people

June 15, 1996|By Harold Jackson

THE GREAT budget crisis of the spring of '96 is finally over, boys and girls. Yawn. Oh, pardon me. Wouldn't want anyone to underestimate the fiscal problems Baltimore faces. You've probably heard the doom-and-gloom story countless times by now. And it's all true.

The tax-paying middle class is moving out; leaving the city to the tax-sheltered rich, who are little inconvenienced by its shortcomings, and the tax-supported poor, for whom inconvenience is a way of life. This malady afflicts not only this town, but all of urban America. But since it's vogue to act like these metropolises aren't part of the United States, their common ailment is not treated as a national disease. With some federal assistance, each must find its cure.

With that reality as the backdrop, no one was really surprised two months ago when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke declared the existence of a budget crisis and said an income-tax increase was the only thing that could save the city.

But Mr. Schmoke discovered his declaration of a fiscal crisis hardly excited a public that wondered, ''What's new?'' So his honor altered his tune. His assertion that the people wouldn't support ''harsh measures'' such as layoffs and reductions in services to balance the budget was softened as he realized they would.

Certain constituencies, as expected, screamed loudly when it became apparent whose ox would be gored, but the greater public demanded more thrift, not taxes.

Mr. Schmoke found there was huge support for Council President Lawrence Bell's suggestion that an early-retirement incentive plan devised by the mayor be accelerated to save more cash now by reducing the number of city employees. How annoying, to have some whippersnapper take your idea, add a little wrinkle that, OK, may save millions, and then get all the praise for being smart.

Looking for a few good cuts

Mr. Schmoke pointed out that even if 1,100 workers retire early, as predicted, the greatest impact won't be immediate since any vacation pay and sick leave due them will have to be paid this year. But acknowledging that the income-tax increase had become even harder to sell, he, too, began to push several alternatives.

And once he did that the public became even more skeptical of the depth of the declared crisis, questioning whether the situation could really get any worse than they already thought it was.

The debate turned from increasing the income tax to raising the parking-lot tax and rescinding an exemption to the energy-fuels tax for nonprofit corporations. The nonprofits, including Johns Hopkins, barely had to flex a muscle to quiet such talk. Parking-lot operators didn't fare as well, nor did owners of video and pinball game arcades, but the tax increases on them will be modest.

The fact that the mayor wasn't even in the country during most of the final budget negotiations erased whatever remained of the crisis mood he had created in April. At the request of President Clinton, Mr. Schmoke was in Istanbul attending an international conference on urban problems.

Here's hoping he brought back some good ideas. He'll need them to create the public excitement for change he had hoped his income-tax proposal would generate.

Cutting Recreation and Parks doesn't excite people because they no longer expect much from its destitute rec centers.

Cutting the Pratt Library excites people, but there's too little money to make the effort worthwhile. Cutting fire and police risks lives.

People want to see economies they haven't noticed before -- at City Hall, the Department of Public Works, the Housing Department. Make bigger cuts in those budgets, slash further their number of employees, and the public will recognize the truth.

Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/15/96

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