Governor's budget forgets needs of ailing Baltimore

January 23, 2000|By Barry Rascovar

DURING William Donald Schaefer's last years as Maryland chief executive, critics called him the "Governor of Baltimore," for what they felt was his tendency to tilt state aid toward his beloved city.

This year, a strong case can be made for calling Parris N. Glendening the "Governor of Prince George's County."

Never before has Mr. Glendening's tilt toward his home county been so pronounced. He has lavishing truckloads of money there: a billion-dollar bridge, highway improvements, new subway lines, school construction cash.

Baltimore, meanwhile, is mysteriously left off the list of aid recipients -- though it far outweighs all other jurisdictions in terms of basic needs.

In the best of fiscal times, Mr. Glendening has ignored the dire plight of Baltimore's foundering schools, crowded courts, decaying neighborhoods, over-subscribed drug treatment programs and ineffective mass transit. Mayor Martin O'Malley's priorities got the back of the hand.

Yes, the governor is spreading money around for most of these priorities, but he's doing it on a statewide basis, not targeting aid for Baltimore's specific ills. Compared with the counties in suburban Washington, Baltimore is really taking it on the chin.

Skimping on schools

The worst school system in Maryland, where roughly 85 percent of the children can't read at grade level, received an aid increase of just $917,000. Prince George's County got an extra $21.5 million; Montgomery County -- one of the richest jurisdictions in the nation -- got an extra $13.7 million.

Total state aid to the city will rise next fiscal year by just 0.5 percent, compared with a statewide average of 4.4 percent. Baltimore's aid increase is fourth lowest. Prince George's will get a 5.7 percent increase, the second-highest percentage increase. Montgomery's increase, 4.8 percent, is third-highest in Maryland.

Library aid to the city, home of the Enoch Pratt Free Library -- Maryland's only designated State Library Resource Center -- will rise a mere $147,000. Prince George's libraries, in contrast, will get an increase of nearly triple that amount.

Police and fire aid to Baltimore will actually decline by $151,000, even though Baltimore is on a pace to record another 300 murders this year. The city is Maryland's crime capital.

Montgomery County, hardly a crime hotbed, is getting an extra $232,000 from the state; Prince George's County, $121,000.

Even the governor's Smart Growth activities work against Baltimore. He's putting aside $115 million for land preservation programs this coming year. It's earmarked for the suburbs, not Baltimore.

Neighborhood development efforts will occur all over the state. Baltimore gets $21.5 million to help renovate the Hippodrome Theater, a linchpin of the west side development effort downtown. That's a big assist from Mr. Glendening.

But sadly, it's the governor's only localized effort in the city of any magnitude. So Baltimore's neighborhoods -- which are most in need of state assistance -- go wanting.

Let's face it. Baltimore is dragging Maryland down. At a time when the state's economy is booming, Baltimore's tax base is actually shrinking. City residents continue to flee. Persuading companies to remain in town gets tougher every year.

Who can blame them. The city has sky-high crime, massive drug addiction, nightly gunfire resembling the Wild West, non-performing schools and crumbling housing.

Fair weather politics

Mr. Glendening told reporters last week -- paraphrasing John F. Kennedy -- that "you fix the roof in sunny times." That's what the governor's $19.6 billion budget tries to accomplish. But there's no triage system at work.

The money is spread all around the state. That's good politics. But, unfortunately, the patient in Baltimore is bleeding to death.

This governor prides himself, and with justification, for implementing a Smart Growth program to stem sprawl and revive older communities. Yet he hasn't brought it to the one area where it is needed most -- Baltimore.

The city doesn't have the money or the manpower to revitalize all its imperiled neighborhoods. The state, though, has the resources that could make a huge difference.

Smart Growth should mean fixing up city schools so families are eager to send their kids to them. Smart Growth should mean sweeping city streets of violent offenders and drug dealers so neighborhoods can thrive. Smart Growth should mean underwriting enough drug-treatment slots for everyone who wants to reform.

And Smart Growth should mean pouring state money into neighborhood revitalization efforts to make declining areas vital again.

Perhaps by the end of this legislative session, Mr. O'Malley will persuade the governor to adopt the city as a priority project. If this doesn't occur, Smart Growth will remain an ideal unfulfilled. And Baltimore will continue to be an enormous detriment to Maryland, even in a time of plenty.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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