Finish the job City budget: Spending plan recognizes need to shrink government, but how?

June 18, 1996

WHEN HE WAS trying to convince the public to support a 10 percent increase in the piggyback income tax, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the choice was clear. Baltimore could either find new revenue sources or reduce government services. Repudiation of that tax increase should have sent him a strong message, but Mr. Schmoke nonetheless insisted that the City Council approve two less ambitious revenue measures that together will provide under $3 million. In a $2 billion budget, that's peanuts. It's only enough to postpone some tough spending decisions that still must be made.

The mayor has acknowledged the need to further shrink city government. It was his early-retirement incentive program to which Council President Lawrence A. Bell III added modifications that should speed up retirements. If the program meets expectations, more than 1,000 city employees will retire this year and save the city millions of dollars in salaries. But Mr. Schmoke needs to direct the course of those retirements by targeting specific agencies and departments for workforce reductions that would spur applications for the buyout.

He and the council have massaged the books to find funds originally withheld from the Pratt Library and the recreation department. Neither, however, will be funded at a level commensurate to its needs. Now that the heat of the annual budget debate has subsided, Mr. Schmoke should study every city agency to determine the form in which it might best serve Baltimore. More streamlined versions of each agency may be practical as well as more affordable. There needs to be a comprehensive study.

Mr. Schmoke said during the budget discussion that one of the biggest problems he had in trying to convince people to support an income tax increase was their belief that tax dollars aren't wisely spent in the city. He's not going to change any minds about that until he changes the look of city government. Approving a 1997 budget bought some time, but the mayor and council still have to make difficult decisions about spending. Mr. Bell and Mr. Schmoke believe their collaboration on the budget was better than that of any of their predecessors. They should take advantage of the relationship and together develop a plan to restructure city government for the future.

Pub Date: 6/18/96

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