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Baltimore city, of course, is facing a similar fiasco, a whopping $54 million budget gap for next year. But, in stark contrast to Howard, when Mayor Schmoke gave employees the choice of enduring layoffs or giving up their scheduled pay increases, there were, really, no options. Members of the City Union of Baltimore reluctantly deferred the 6 percent raise the union had won in bargaining only a year ago. The bitterness of the disappointment among city workers was as palpable as the frustration.

While Howard County's struggle will in all likelihood be defined by the recession, tight budgets are an annual event in Baltimore city. Even if this were a boom time, the challenge still would be to downsize the work force and cut spending.

The problem is the already-familiar cycle: a high tax rate, the flight of the middle class and dwindling services. To survive -- to upgrade services and provide financial security for its workers -- Baltimore city needs a lower tax rate, and that means state help. That will not occur, however, unless the legislature manages to resurrect the dead Linowes tax package this summer.

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