D.C. puts itself back on the map

Baltimore is lagging behind Washington in crime fighting, money

New control board is key

April 05, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Preposterous. Unbelievable. Embarrassing.

But true.

The District of Columbia is faring better than Baltimore.

As recently as five years ago, Washington, D.C., was the laughingstock of American cities. In addition to being dubbed "Murder Capital USA" for leading the country in homicides, the nation's capital was ridiculed in 1994 for re-electing a mayor convicted for smoking crack cocaine.

As recently as five years ago, the district faced seemingly intractable urban problems -- ones found in abundance in Baltimore today, such as rampant violent crime, poor schools, fleeing homeowners and a budget teetering on red ink.

Today, Washington is on the rebound.

The district finished last year with a $450 million budget surplus -- the largest in its history -- and used it to wipe out a $332 million debt. The number of city homicides dropped to 260, lower than neighboring Baltimore by 54. A $5,000 federal income tax credit to first-time district homebuyers -- combined with a commercial redevelopment boom ignited by the construction of the MCI Center downtown -- is making the district one of the hottest real estate markets in the nation.

Add a dynamic new mayor, a strong economy and record tourism and the renaissance of the nation's capital is in full swing.

"The confidence level in city government is turning around," said Dale Mattison, former president of the Washington D.C. Association of Realtors. "The tick of outward movement has almost gone to zero."

As Baltimore, 42 miles to the northeast, gears up to elect its next leader, the city faces many of the same woes the district confronted.

Finance leaders warn that Baltimore, which finished last year with a $2.5 million surplus, will slip into a deficit over the next two years unless a major overhaul of city services is undertaken.

Baltimore finished its ninth straight year with more than 300 homicides. That puts the homicide rate in the city, with its 645,000 residents -- according to the Census Bureau -- slightly lower than the district, which has fewer residents.

Baltimore leaders continue to struggle over how to keep residents from leaving at a pace of about 1,000 per month.

A decade ago with the gleaming Inner Harbor gaining Baltimore national attention, city leaders never dreamed that Baltimore could trail the district in any category.

"We're in denial," said Baltimore City Councilman Martin O'Malley, the city administration's fiercest critic. "It's like an alcoholic. You have to hit rock bottom before you can turn around."

City leaders, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, call comparisons between the two cities unfair because of the federal aid extended to the district. For years, Washington gained four times the federal aid per resident that Baltimore did and four out of 10 jobs in the city were connected to the federal government.

Financial Control Board

Credit for the district's renewal is given to the Financial Control Board, a five-member panel of civic and business leaders appointed four years ago by Congress and President Clinton to revamp district management.

The board faced opposition from former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. and his supporters, who accused the federal government of taking over the city and stripping district residents of their right to vote for their leaders. Yet the control board turned the city around through one crucial act: disconnecting city politics from delivery of services.

The key, control board members said, involved slashing a city work force of 43,000 that controlled the elected leaders they were supposed to be serving through the ballot box.

"The unions were very much ensconced in the bureaucracy," Control Board Chairman Andrew F. Brimmer said. "Elected officials were carrying the water of the unions."

Union officials disagree with the assessment. They say the resurgence of the district has come at the expense of African-American residents, who before Barry's initial election as mayor in 1978, failed to hold power in city government.

Now that power is eroded because too many district residents are losing their jobs in the shake-up, union officials say. New city leaders such as Mayor Anthony A. Williams are being accused of not being "black enough" to understand the plight of minority district residents.

"They came in with a plantation mentality," George Johnson, administrator of the 7,000-member American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said of the control board. "Anytime someone comes in from the outside and tells you how to run your house, there's something wrong with that."

Despite a population drop of about 70,000 residents between 1980 to 1994, the district's municipal work force more than doubled from 20,000 to 43,000. The first action taken by the control board was to eliminate 5,600 positions, including 3,600 that stood vacant.

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