Baltimore City needs a leaner government

May 08, 2001|By George A. Nilson

IT IS OFTEN said that death and taxes are the very definition of "inevitable." In Baltimore City, they are now linked in a special way.

Mayor Martin O'Malley ran on a platform focused on our public safety problem in general and our high murder rate in particular. He hired a new police commissioner, encouraged fresh approaches to crime fighting and supported substantial pay raises for police officers.

Those raises carried a big price tag. We have known for at least a year that public safety costs were going to increase substantially. The inevitable has happened, and the link of inevitability between death and taxes in the city has now been established.

Faced with the long-predictable budget deficit, the O'Malley administration proposes to increase the city's piggyback income tax from its current level of 50 percent of the state tax to the maximum level permitted by law (60 percent). Instead of matching Baltimore County's 55 percent tax level, the proposed jump ensures that the city will out-tax Baltimore County in two major areas, as its property tax rate is already twice as high as the county's.

While the piggyback hike has the biggest impact of the measures proposed, it is not the only element of the deficit-covering package.

The administration also proposes to enlarge the energy tax to include nonprofit energy users (who own nearly 25 percent of the real property in the city and are exempt from the property tax) and to lay off some city employees and privatize their maintenance and security job functions. There is an appropriate "share-the-pain" dimension to this three-part program.

But why, when others are lowering taxes, does the city have to raise its piggyback rate to more than the county's? Won't that hurt efforts to reverse our population loss?

Need the increases be as large as they are, or could their size have been reduced by more aggressive cost consciousness by the administration? Some have said that the current shortfall is a temporary phenomenon. Shouldn't any tax increases be "sunsetted" for two years, requiring the mayor and City Council to affirmatively extend them if that proves necessary?

The council should require, or the mayor should agree to, a formal periodic spending/efficiency report explaining what progress has been made, if any. Extension of any new taxes should depend on the outcome of the accountability exercise. If these tax increases are simply put into effect now with an indefinite application, they will silently continue as a permanent part of the higher price of living in the city.

While the administration deserves praise for creating the Citistat program and embracing many of the Greater Baltimore Committee-Presidents' Roundtable recommendations, many promising areas for making the operation of city government leaner and more efficient are either still under review or only in the start-up stages.

They include health care benefits reform, improved management of the city's real estate and vehicle fleet, disposal of surplus city property, work-rules reform and many others. And city employees need to participate in, not resist, the effort since their jobs are ultimately at stake.

It takes miles to stop or turn a freighter under a full head of steam on the high seas. A fair critic might suggest that City Hall should have turned the helm more heavily a year ago. The mayor needs to keep leaning on the wheel, and his crew needs to help him turn the ship and not resist.

George A. Nilson is president of the Baltimore Efficiency and Economy Foundation.

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