O'Malley takes easy way out

April 19, 2001|By Barry Rascovar

MARTIN O'MALLEY doesn't get it. He wasn't elected to raise taxes and shutter library branches.

Yes, city government must shrink. But that can't include halving the "Rat Rub-Out" staff or trimming back on recycling.

Just as the mayor decided he couldn't afford to close 20 recreation centers, he can't afford to lose those library branches, either.

He's learning that being mayor of the "incredible shrinking city" tears at your heart, especially at budget time.

But he'll also discover he can't tax his way out of this budget hole. There's only one real response -- deeper job eliminations that don't entail a lessening of services city residents need the most.

Such as rat eradication. Or recycling. Or libraries.

Mr. O'Malley missed a giant opportunity when he decided not to rush whole-hog into the spending reductions suggested by two business groups. Sure, there would have been pain and strong opposition, but he had public sentiment and momentum on his side.

Now, he's no longer the new boy on the block, the neophyte, folk-singing mayor everyone applauds.

It's a lot tougher this April to slash the size of city government. But eventually that has to happen in a city still losing population.

What's lacking is an imperative to re-create city government, to reinvent the way employees do their jobs. The mayor's "city stat" program is a good start. Far more must be done to make do with less, to find different approaches that work better. It means heavy reliance on technology, cutting costs via computers and the Internet.

And it means drawing the line against added taxation. Baltimore doesn't need another disincentive for living here.

Ed Rendell, when he was mayor of Philadelphia, declared war on a top-heavy City Hall. He cut deeply into the work force, over fierce union resistance. But those agonizing moves paid off. Philadelphia's finances today are in far better shape than Baltimore's.

Yet even Philadelphia recognized that you can't cut out the basics of urban services, and that includes the local library. Building new mega-branches won't work. People without cars simply will stop going to that far-away library.

For many struggling neighborhoods, losing their library is another nail in the coffin. It sends a strong message that their community doesn't count.

The answer is to revive these local libraries as key gathering spots. Turn them into multipurpose centers, as is being done in Cherry Hill. Subsidize a coffee shop in a corner. Offer steep discounts to merchants to locate in the block. Hold public meetings, weekly movies and regular civic events there.

Make these libraries the neighborhood "agora" -- the ancient Greek marketplace where everyone congregated. Chicago is doing it. So is Philadelphia. Only Baltimore seems intent on shutting off the one fount of learning and hope in poor neighborhoods.

The mayor should be pounding on the doors of foundations and pounding on the lieutenant governor's door to come up with the money to make this happen.

The Weinberg Foundation, for instance, should be deeply involved in making sure every impoverished city community has a renovated, well-equipped library designed to serve as a vibrant magnet for commerce, government services and learning.

Other foundations should be pressured to save these library branches, with pledges of funds for operating expenses and neighborhood enhancements.

And Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend should be prodded and heavily pressed to adopt this urban library-revival movement and become its champion when she and the governor draw up next year's state budget.

Imagination. Mr. O'Malley needs more of it. He needs to patch up his differences with state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and get the former mayor involved in finding creative solutions to city problems. The old Schaefer troupe of "Do It Now" players would jump at the chance to help make a difference.

But they have to be asked and brought on board as pro bono partners. And they have to feel their efforts will be appreciated.

Mr. O'Malley now knows how arduous it is to reduce the city's labor force. Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke discovered the same thing. Someone's got to face the inevitable. Deep, lasting cuts may be Baltimore's only way to achieve long-term viability.

Even that's not enough.

Unconventional ways are essential for keeping open recreation centers and reviving the city's wonderful network of parks. Baltimore must improve on what makes it special.

The mayor has to enroll foundations, community leaders, volunteers from the counties, top state leaders and the region's mid-size and large corporations. Call it the Crusade for a New Baltimore.

Mr. O'Malley is right to put public safety first. He must go to the next level, though.

Cut deeper into the budget; then maximize Baltimore's strengths. Be creative. Be imaginative. Be bold.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial page editor.

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