Baltimore mayor's power base shrinking

City: A steady drop in population since the '60s has led to increasing dependence on the state government.

July 25, 1999|By Ivan Penn

JUST 30 YEARS AGO, Baltimore's mayor had the kind of power that would make a king in a small country proud. Baltimore had 900,000 residents, and the city government employed 33,000 workers. In addition, the city government controlled a hospital, an airport, a jail, a community college, a municipal market system, a stadium and an arena.

But a steady population decline during the past three decades has led to the erosion of Baltimore's tax base, forcing the city to privatize some agencies and to turn over others to the state. As a result, today's city work force has been cut by half since 1970.

Johns Hopkins Hospital runs the old City Hospital, now known as Bayview Medical Center. Private firms and quasi-public agencies run the golf courses, the municipal markets, the zoo, the Baltimore Arena (the old Civic Center) and some recreational services.

The state controls formerly city-run institutions such as the airport (now known as Baltimore-Washington International), the community college, the jail and part of the public school system. Memorial Stadium is vacant and scheduled to be torn down. And the two stadiums in the city, Oriole Park at Camden Yards and PSINet Stadium, are run by the Maryland Stadium Authority. Even stretches of Interstate 95 and 395 once policed by the city have been turned over to the state.

Now, political and business leaders are scrambling for a messiah in this year's mayoral race, which includes 27 candidates.

The City Council president, a former councilman from East Baltimore, the city register of wills, and the chairman of the council's Finance and Taxation Committee are considered front-runners. The rest of the field consists of political novices -- including a man who wants to start an auto insurance cooperative and legalize drugs and prostitution; a woman who was arrested for burglary and is undergoing a psychiatric evaluation; and a man with convictions for a probation violation, larceny, shoplifting and impersonating a police officer.

Political observers are concerned that with such a large field of candidates, the election could tilt to a candidate who is unprepared for the job.

After Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke announced that he would not seek a fourth term in December, there was a strong push to get NAACP President Kweisi Mfume to run for mayor. But Mfume disappointed his local supporters by deciding not to seek the job.

"Restoring the city's power really is stopping the hemorrhaging of the population," said state Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairwoman of the city's House delegation and one of the leaders of the movement to draft the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We believe that the right type of mayor, a mayor with a vision for Baltimore, can stop the population loss.

"There may be people who may be able to stay in and maintain [the city], but we must transcend maintenance."

The large field of mayoral candidates has been criticized as weak and lacking the skills needed to guide the city into the 21st century.

In 1987, Schmoke -- the former Rhodes Scholar with degrees from Yale and Harvard universities -- was elected mayor on an agenda that promised to fix some of the city's most pressing problems: an ailing school system, crime and housing.

With his background in criminal justice as a former assistant U.S. attorney and the city state's attorney, he seemed the ideal candidate to curb Baltimore's murder rate. Schmoke also promised to find a solution to the vacant-housing problem.

Schmoke's critics say he did not deliver. The city schools continue to be troubled by low test scores, the murder rate remains among the highest in the nation, vacant houses have multiplied, and the tax base has shrunk as the city's population has dropped.

Whoever becomes mayor will inherit many of these problems and must find innovative solutions.

From 1970 to the present, the city's population dropped 28 percent, from 905,800 to 656,000, according to statistics from the U.S. Census and the Baltimore Housing Authority. The population is expected to fall to 620,000 by 2010, said Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

Baltimore was Maryland's most populated jurisdiction in 1970 but has fallen to fourth, behind Montgomery County (840,879), Prince George's County (777,811) and Baltimore County (721,874), according to the latest figures from the Maryland Office of Planning.

Janet Hoffman, a fiscal sage who worked with Baltimore's mayors throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s, watched Baltimore transform from the wealthiest and most powerful Maryland jurisdiction to a city dependent on state and federal aid packages to divert it from a path of financial turmoil.

Hoffman, 80, said the city's mayors during the last 30 years had to surrender much of their power in order to save the city.

"It means that the city is less stressed than it would have been if these steps were not taken," Hoffman said. "What's the point of maintaining power over a bankrupt entity? What kind of power is that?"

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