County's share is more than fair

Tension: City complaints that Baltimore County should pay more to help maintain shared cultural institutions are not based on the facts.

June 11, 2000|By Kevin B. Kamenetz

DOES Baltimore County give its "fair share" of support for cultural institutions based in Baltimore City? This question is playing out on our local political stage and the plot centers on the recent funding flap over the Hippodrome Theater redevelopment project.

In Act One, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, after strong prodding by state legislators, proposed that Baltimore County contribute $1 million dollars over two years toward the ambitious downtown renovation plan.

In Act Two, the County Council provided its own performance by cutting this year's promised allocation in half. Some in the city audience were not amused. There's no telling how the melodrama will end.

The council cut back the county's contribution to the renovation project after it was confronted with an unrelated issue - the unanticipated loss of state funding for school construction. As a result, the council felt the need to focus on capital projects at home instead of lending more aid to its neighbor. But the council didn't get applause from its city critics for exercising fiscal prudence Instead, the action was viewed as a blow to regionalism and drew a threat from a powerful city legislator in Annapolis.

The truth is, when it comes to regional cooperation, Baltimore County has been a good actor. It contributes more to cultural institutions in Baltimore City than any other neighboring jurisdiction.

While Baltimore City spent $6.3 million to support the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Walters Art Gallery, and other city cultural institutions, Baltimore County contributed $2.6 million .

Baltimore County's tax dollars benefited 26 grants to city cultural organizations. Since 1996, Baltimore County's appropriations to city cultural institutions have increased 210 percent - from $836,000 annually to $2.6 million in the latest approved budget. Over this period, there has been an 86 percent increase in the number of grants issued to city cultural institutions.

By comparison, other neighboring jurisdictions play no more than bit parts. Baltimore County's $2.6 million annual contribution dwarfs Anne Arundel County's $157,000 and Harford County's $165,000. And Howard County gave $102,000, while burgeoning Carroll County gave a puny $2,500.

Baltimore County provides indirect regional support to city residents as well. For example, more Baltimoreans use the county's library system - without charge - than use the city's Enoch Pratt Free Library. A substantial number of city residents use Baltimore County Police Athletic League (PAL) Centers near the city line. And it appears that many city children attend county public schools without authorization, although the county has cracked down on this abuse.

In recognition of the city's eroding tax base, Baltimore County has turned down economic development projects that would have put it in competition with the city. For example, an indoor hockey arena was rejected in Lansdowne, a convention center expansion at the fairgrounds in Timonium was discouraged and businesses seeking to relocate from the city to Baltimore County are being asked to reconsider.

The region's county elected officials all play primarily to the audience of their citizenry. And typically, they draw poor reviews from their constituents by contributing money to institutions in the city. In Baltimore County, the prevailing view is that county tax dollars are better spent within the county for county needs.

Another reason for county discontent is a perception that the city government hasn't performed enough fiscal belt-tightening on its own.

For example, although Baltimore County has more than 10 percent more residents than the city, the operating budget of its seven-member county council is less than one-third of Baltimore's 19-member city council.

The number of city fire stations, libraries, public works and municipal services arguably are pegged to a population base 30 percent greater than at present. It cries out for downsizing.

In a thoughtful essay on regionalism in the May 2000 Calvert Institute Brief, attorney George Liebmann notes that the city's response to regional resistance is one of negative threats: "If regionalism does not come about, we'll slip even further down the tubes, dragging the counties with us."

Liebmann aptly states that the "regionalism-by-threat approach" is "unlikely to find many takers in the newly minted developments in the suburbs - populated as they are largely with people who left the city because they could no longer tolerate it.

A Baltimore that flatly refuses to help itself can scarcely expect others to come to its rescue."

To produce a successful show, one actor can't hog all of the lines. If these institutions are truly "regional," then the counties should have a greater role in running them. This would allow the counties to share the burden of ownership and expense.

If Baltimore City could also make more belt-tightening moves on its own, and lighten up on the rhetoric, then maybe this political drama could have a happy ending - and a grand reopening of the Hippodrome.

Kevin B. Kamenetz is serving his second term on the Baltimore County Council. He represents the Second District, which includes Pikesville, Liberty Road corridor and Wood lawn.

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