Harford Co. leader sees turnaround for the city

January 15, 2002|By Michael Olesker

A MR. TONY Oleszczuk writes from Bel Air about the woes of Harford County: too many new residents, he writes, and too many new homes, too many kids in the public schools, and too much taxation to pay for so much wild and unrestrained growth.

He writes this in the Letters to the Editor column in yesterday's Sun. If Martin O'Malley noticed it, he must have sighed with envy: "Ah, to have such problems." The letter appeared while efforts commenced yesterday to shrink the Baltimore City Council, a move based on the city's great population loss of the last decade, which was accompanied by great public school loss, and great deterioration of housing stock, and continued high taxation of those in the city who work for a living.

We are two communities, Harford County and the city of Baltimore, that often seem to be going in different directions, coping with problems that sometimes look like opposite mirror images.

Among those who read Mr. Oleszczuk's letter about Harford County's problems was Jim Harkins. He is Harford County executive, and catches most of the flak in the letter. Flak comes with the job. So does a quick defense. Yesterday, Harkins referred to the letter with two familiar letters of the alphabet, unprintable in your daily newspaper.

"Actually," Harkins said, "we've slowed the county's growth and instituted a policy of taking old neighborhoods and bringing them back. We're redeveloping the rust belt along Route 40. We've gone into troubled areas like Edgewood and tried to create a renaissance inside the existing community. We're embracing the governor's notion of Smart Growth.

"I just came back from New York," Harkins said. "The county sold bonds for school construction. Our bond rating has gone up three times. The Wall Street people who rate governments, these people are conservatives, they're curmudgeons - and they praised our managed growth and our reasonableness."

It sounded a little funny, hearing Harkins get defensive. In Baltimore, we've gone through a stretch of losing a thousand people a month over much of the last decade. Lots of those people went to Harford County - for its open space, its safe schools, its safe neighborhoods.

In Baltimore, we have the latest ugliness at Northern High School, where parents worry every time their kids go to class. In recent days, the mayor has enlisted every city agency for fresh approaches to the troubles. But Northern's just emblematic of an entire system in trouble.

In Harford County, while the huge growth of the last decade has cut into per-student spending (the county's 18th out of 23 state subdivisions), the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program reading and math scores are among the highest in Maryland. In Baltimore, they issue testimonials if the scores show signs of progress - even as they remain among the lowest in the state.

In Harford County, there's been a boom in the last decade in new housing - but, in Baltimore, there are thousands of abandoned homes, and thousands more barely habitable, as population has plummeted. And with that plummeting, we have calls to reduce the size of the City Council - because who needs so many council members for a smaller populace (and its corresponding smaller tax base)?

And yet, of all people, it is Jim Harkins who cautions that everything is not necessarily what it seems.

"It's changing," he said. "We were fed by that long exodus from the city and from Baltimore County. But the exodus is changing." In the 1970s, Harford County's population grew 26 percent; in the '80s, 25 percent; in the '90s, 20 percent. In the past three years, though, there's been virtually no growth.

"There's a new line of thinking," Harkins said. "There's a mayor in Baltimore who's really dealing with crime, which prompted so many people to leave the city. And there are county executives now who are realists. They understand, if Baltimore fails, the region fails.

"So we now have more serious efforts to look at problems as they affect the entire region. Crime doesn't stop at the county line. It comes all the way out here. Traffic problems, same thing. And what we're seeing is that the exodus is leveling off. It's throttled back. People are finally saying, `The city's not so bad.'"

Much of this talk is composed of generalities. But it contains truth. There are city neighborhoods alive with newcomers - many of them young people from such places as Harford County. Their parents were part of the original suburban exodus, and the kids benefited from the clean neighborhoods and new schools. But a lot of them find the suburbs bland. They're the ones discovering such places as Federal Hill and Locust Point, Fells Point and Canton and the Patterson Park area.

So here's a question: What if this trend, noticed by Harkins and others, continues? What if the city's population begins to turn around? Yesterday, bills were to be introduced to shrink the size of the City Council. Follow-up question: If the city's population grows, do they expand the council all over again?

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