Returning power to city people

Direction: The key to reversing the city's decline lies not in regionalism and bureaucracy, but in decentralization.

July 23, 2000|By George Liebmann

Is Mayor Martin O'Malley going to bring a new approach of neighborhood revival to Baltimore, or will he energetically continue to pursue the failed policies of past administrations? Will his administration be a trumpet blast for decentralization that puts power and responsibility in the hands of the taxpayers or the death rattle for bloated big-city government?

The evidence is not yet clear. Thus far, the new regime stands only for its promised new approach to policing. The mayor's other initiatives -- the provision of small amounts of money to renew business districts and city sponsorship of neighborhood cleanup efforts -- are merely business as usual.

The usual suspects in advocacy groups sing the familiar siren songs advocating regionalism, new state aid and state takeovers. Creeping state control of the school and court systems has followed state capture of the airport, the port, the mass transit system, the community college, the probation system and the city jail. The attrition of municipal independence has been such that, if it continues, the mayor would be well advised to imitate London's mayor by equipping himself with a mace, a mansion and ermine robes, since no other badges of authority will remain.

If the mayor is to arrest Baltimore's transformation into a bureaucratic feedlot, bereft of self-government and a middle class, he is going to have to follow a course directly opposite to that urged on him by so-called city well-wishers such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and David Rusk, the author of "Baltimore Unbound: A Strategy for Regional Renewal."

Rather than agreeing to the creation of ever larger and more remote bureaucratic structures, he should radically decentralize what's left of the city government.

The transformation in New York during the Giuliani administration is not solely due to stiffer policing, but to the creation of dozens of new business-improvement districts, with their own taxing powers, which allow shopkeepers and commercial property owners to have the same advantages as merchants' associations in suburban shopping malls. They have the ability to finance adequate security, additional parking, cooperative advertising and street cleaning.

Forty states allow the free establishment of special taxing districts. The Schmoke administration opposed state legislation that would have provided authorization for special taxing districts citywide. Currently, the city has the Downtown Management District and the Midtown Tax District and is authorized to create four additional special taxing districts.

Baltimore's schools are bureaucratically run and bureaucratically organized. The mayor sat by while the Glendening administration and teachers unions strangled charter school proposals and rejected federal funds to support them for the third year running. Even the limited autonomy enjoyed by Baltimore City College is threatened.

Happily, the city schools have now acquired a superintendent who is familiar with what charter schools have achieved in New York. If she is not to meet with total frustration, Baltimore needs charter school legislation, and at least each of its high schools should have its own board. Top-down reform can work to some extent in primary schools, but it is foredoomed as a strategy for improvement of high schools with diverse curricula.

All city neighborhoods need their own community associations with limited taxing authority. Only Charles Village has such an association.

Neighborhoods with limited resources can have their revenues matched with city funds, monitored through annual audits. Even problem neighborhoods can benefit from associations to run cleanup campaigns, organize security patrols and sponsor van services.

Neighborhoods elsewhere in the state are allowed to organize special districts -- why not in Baltimore?

Such districts in many parts of the world administer and contract out street-paving and trash-removal services, reducing city bureaucracies and achieving large savings in the process.

In Germany, Denmark and Holland, street associations have the power to narrow streets, use traffic-calming devices and in some instances to maintain streets and street lighting.

Here in the United States, homeowners associations in the St. Louis area can acquire ownership of abutting streets and take responsibility for traffic control, lighting and maintenance.

Other cities, as urged by former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry G. Cisneros, have rearranged street patterns and used Japanese-style police kobans as a deterrent to crime.

Far Eastern countries allow owners on a block to organize land readjustment associations, a cooperative form of urban renewal that is frequently faster and less controversial then city condemnation or private land assembly.

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