Fiscal gloom ahead for Baltimore City

Budget: Mayoral candidates must outline how they plan to deal with $153.5 million shortfall.

May 29, 1999

BALTIMORE CITY is on course to end this fiscal year with a $9 million surplus -- as a result of money Baltimoreans have made on Wall Street. But that's a mirage. The city's tax base is so stagnant budget chief Edward J. Gallagher predicts a cumulative $153.5 million shortfall over the next four years.

"The city's limited revenue base has been exhausted and by itself can no longer preserve the basic public services needed to stabilize our community and support its economic growth," Mr. Gallagher told the City Council this week.

This dire forecast isn't a surprise. Baltimore's weakening economic condition has been evident for years. Yet little has been done to turn the situation around.

Indeed, when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was asked Thursday about the projected $153.5 million shortfall, he suggested the city go begging to the Maryland General Assembly for more handouts.

During his 12 years as mayor, Mr. Schmoke has had ample opportunity to address Baltimore's wobbly economic condition. He repeatedly failed to do so. A telling example was the 1992 report of his Organizational Review Team, which recommended streamlining the bloated municipal government into more efficient and less costly bureaucracies. After an initial pledge to implement reforms, the report was ignored.

As a result, the city continues to function haphazardly. Permit processes are so cumbersome many building projects are done illegally; the city's own real estate management is in disarray; collection of fees and penalties is desultory. Much of that could have been corrected had Mayor Schmoke implemented the 1992 reforms.

It will now be up to the next mayor to pilot Baltimore through choppy fiscal waters. This cannot be done on faith and improvisation; it requires a carefully designed master plan.

Nothing in the mayoral campaign is more important than for candidates to detail how they plan to deal with the looming budget crisis. All with hats in the ring must explain their solutions. The ideas of the leading contenders, City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, who enjoys strong support from municipal unions, and Carl Stokes, a former councilman, must be subjected to particularly careful scrutiny. How would they create new revenue sources? Which city service functions would they privatize? How much of the bureaucracy would they trim?

This bleak situation did not fall upon Baltimore unexpectedly. We cannot accept vagueness from candidates -- or make promises of further study. If a mayoral hopeful fails to outline a reasonable plan now, he or she will not likely produce a coherent fiscal program once in office.

Pub Date: 5/29/99

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