City finances the unspoken issue

Mayoral candidates face rising costs, declining tax base

September 02, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

It has been called the mayoral campaign's unspoken issue.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's successor will take office in December saddled with a projected $153 million deficit over the next four years.

The problem is simple: City spending will exceed yearly income because of a leveling off of property taxes from families moving out. The solution, as mayoral candidates know, is anything but elementary.

FOR THE RECORD - An article published in yesterday's editions of The Sun listed the wrong sponsor of the city's 1994 Living Wage law. Former City Council President Mary Pat Clarke sponsored the law. A similar law was sponsored on the city school board by Carl Stokes. The Sun regrets the errors.

The Baltimore Homeowners Coalition, a citizens group that over the past four years has tried to focus attention on the problem, recently published a 32-page booklet pinning the mayoral candidates down on how they would deal with the city's financial woes.

The fiscal challenge for the next mayor, the group contends, is to maintain city services while trying to reduce the $5.83 per $100 of assessed value property tax rate that is twice as high as any other jurisdiction's in the state.

"It is one of the most important issues, and it's being obscured," said the group's president, Karen M. Footner.

Democrat Carl Stokes, a former city councilman, said that if elected mayor, he would cut the property tax rate by $1 over the first four years of his administration. The former school board member supports making city workers bid against private companies for contracts to provide city services, a program pioneered by Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith.

Republican candidate David F. Tufaro also supports the policy, dubbed "competitive re-engineering."

"We intend to reward city workers for jobs well done and take action to reduce the city's employment rolls where it makes sense to do so," Stokes said in response to the coalition questionnaire.

City Councilman Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who served as chairman of the council's Finance and Taxation Committee, considers Stokes' tax cut pledge unrealistic. O'Malley, who pushed for a 12-cent cut in the $5.95 property tax rate in place when he joined the council in 1991, said the tax rate could be reduced by 6 cents, to $5.77, over 4 years.

O'Malley would cut middle-level managers to help reduce spending, saying that already stretched city services are unable to support further cuts. Instead of cutting the budget, O'Malley suggests that the city could raise its property tax income by improving public safety and thus stemming the tide of departing residents.

"We are already cut near the bone with regard to the front-line employees that actually deliver city services," O'Malley said.

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III asserts that the budget forecast is not as grim as officials in the Schmoke administration contend. Bell, a Democrat who helped push through a 3-cent property tax cut last year and boasts of the 17-cent reduction in the rate since he joined the council in 1987, notes that the city balanced its budget over the past four years of his council presidency.

"We have afforded those employees we do have," said Bell, who as council president leads the city's powerful Board of Estimates spending agency.

Cutting the work force

Bell says the key to improving city finances is reducing the number of city employees by offering an early retirement package. In 1996, 1,100 city workers accepted early retirement, and Bell believes a similar offering could further reduce the ranks.

Reducing the number of government workers has been suggested by city budget leaders as the key to turning around the city's finances. Over the past 12 years, Schmoke has cut about 4,000 city workers, mostly through attrition.

Yet a study released last year by the Calvert Institute, a conservative think tank in Baltimore, asserts that the city has 5,500 more employees -- at a cost of $224 million annually -- than cities of similar size nationwide. The institute listed the Department of Public Works as the most bloated agency, with four times as many workers as those in similar cities, despite criticism -- most recently from Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- about filthy streets.

City leaders challenge those findings, saying the comparisons are unfair. For example, the Public Works Department, the city's largest with 6,000 employees, operates the regional water and wastewater systems for surrounding counties.

Two years ago, Schmoke created a group to study privatizing city services. His Millennium Group hired a consulting firm that is expected soon to recommend city services that could be better provided by private contractors.

From the outset of his campaign, Stokes said he would open city services to bidding by private companies, a move that would put him at odds with city unions, which support Bell.

"As we have said repeatedly, one of the key objectives to the Stokes administration will be to make the government work smart," said Stokes, who contends that he can find up to $100 million in wasted city spending, although he acknowledges not knowing where the savings would be found.

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