County boosters waste time touting rankings

March 01, 1998|By Elise Armacost

LAST WEEK, the leaders of Baltimore, Montgomery and Howard counties sounded like college cheerleaders: "We're No. 1!" "No, we're No. 1!" I half expected them to show up in The Sun's editorial board offices carrying pom-poms.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger has been touting recently released state statistics showing his county tops in job growth from 1994 to last year. An article in The Sun used the figure to conclude that his county is doing better than any other.

Wait! cried Montgomery County. Figures for the second quarters of 1996 and last year "show Montgomery County in first place by a comfortable margin," wrote an assistant to County Executive Douglas M. Duncan in a letter to the editor.

Dueling letters

A few days later, this lively missive from Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker rolled over the fax machine: "The truth of the matter is that Baltimore County and Montgomery County can duke it out over who is second in the number of net new jobs, because Howard County is No. 1." He says Howard led the area in new jobs from 1990 to 1996.

Who's the pretender here? Actually, no one. "What each of them is saying is correct," says Michael Funk of Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute, which analyzes labor data. Each county is pointing to a different period of time, and each had the most new jobs during that period.

There is, as the saying goes, more than one way to skin a cat. Mr. Funk notes that little St. Mary's County could also use

statistics to stake a claim to the championship; during the past year, it added jobs at a higher rate than any Maryland county.

The parochial braggadocio about who's No. 1 is a little silly for a number of reasons. It is a function of our "go for the gold" culture, our penchant for ranking everything from bed-and-breakfasts to how schools perform on state tests. We tend to forget that it's possible to rank 10th out of 20 and still be quite good, if the field is strong. We revere No. 1s and quickly forget the rest.

News organizations, sad to say, encourage such shallowness. In August, The Sun ran an article proclaiming Howard County as the leader in job growth; six months later, Baltimore County finds itself so anointed.

So, naturally, the county executives want to claim the top spot -- especially because Mr. Ecker is a candidate for governor and the other two may seek that office one day. Job creation and economic development are important; commercial growth pays for all other growth. Voters expect their leaders to take steps to stimulate the economy, and blame them when it struggles. The competition for bragging rights is silly, not because job growth is inconsequential to people in their position, but because who is No. 1 is less important than that Howard, Baltimore and Montgomery counties are all doing extremely well.

A regional approach

Also, economic development is increasingly a regional matter. Across the nation, new businesses are gravitating to jurisdictions that have marketed themselves as part of a powerful unit. Leaders in the Baltimore-Washington area -- including these three executives -- have acknowledged that their first concern is attracting jobs to the region. Yes, every county needs its own healthy portion of commercial development because most residential growth does not pay for itself; though bedroom communities reap property and income taxes from residents who commute elsewhere, these usually are not enough to offset the cost of services.

Nonetheless, it has become counterproductive for neighboring jurisdictions to engage in cutthroat competition for jobs. That is more likely to send the jobs scurrying to another state. Baltimore and its suburbs would do better to support each other; the benefits often spill across political boundaries by stimulating related business growth and always enhance the entire area's cachet. Mr. Ruppersberger, Mr. Ecker and Mr. Duncan know this.

They know, too, that statistics rarely provide a complete picture of anything. The number of new jobs is only one measure of a jurisdiction's health. The kind of jobs matters. Happily, Mr. Funk says, along with low-wage retail positions and construction work, Montgomery, Howard and Baltimore counties are seeing growth in "quality" jobs -- the service occupations, engineering, research, communication and the nonbanking financial realm.

Household income, property- and income-tax revenue streams, housing mix and the median age of a population are factors that must be considered, too. Thriving counties still have their problems. Baltimore County's median household income is only $43,800, second lowest in the region after Baltimore's. Poverty rates are rising as poor city residents move out in search of a better life. This, coupled with a rapidly aging population, means tax revenues likely will decline as the need for services rises. In Howard, housing has become so expensive that candidates for new low-wage jobs can't afford to live there.

Times are good. But the folks who are cheering should be careful not to get too carried away.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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