Deflating the bloat in a shrinking city Vision needed: Mayor Schmoke starts re-election campaign without game plan for harder times.

May 09, 1998

A REPORT claiming Baltimore has thousands of superfluous municipal workers underscores the need for Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to develop a realistic long-range economic plan.

No such strategy exists, though the mayor acknowledges this year's rosy budget picture is likely to turn much gloomier in the near future.

And why wouldn't it? The city, after losing some 275,000 residents and untold businesses since 1950, keeps shrinking.

Although city planners assume that the population will stabilize at roughly the current 675,000, pessimistic projections are that the number will decline to 525,000 by 2020. A slide of such magnitude could mean a fiscal disaster for the aging city.

During his second term, in 1992, Mr. Schmoke seemed briefly preoccupied by the fiscal and structural problems of city government. He talked about devising a long-range strategic plan. He started a reorganization. Unfortunately, that overhaul has so far produced only a much larger Department of Public Works that today employs nearly one-third of the city's 16,087 budgeted employees (excluding the school system's staff).

The size of this public works colossus raises some of the sharpest questions in "Padded Payroll: An Examination of Municipal Employment Practices in Baltimore City." The study, published by the conservative Calvert Institute for Policy Research, says public works staffing -- 370.4 percent more than comparative cities' averages -- is "truly astonishing."

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Homeowners' Coalition is questioning the city's unusually high contribution to retirees' health benefits. That money, the group says, could be used more prudently for other purposes, including decreasing taxpayers' property tax burden, which is more than twice as heavy as in any other Maryland jurisdiction.

These examples pinpoint one thorny area Mr. Schmoke should deal with as he begins campaigning for a fourth term: The time has come to trim the bloated city bureaucracy. Without a well-crafted plan, a future budget crunch will force the city to begin painful and drastic belt tightening.

Pub Date: 5/09/98

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