For years, members of the Schmoke administration repeated the premise as if chanting a mantra: Baltimore would have to cut its municipal work force, they said, in order to cope with spiraling costs and sluggish tax revenue growth.
But last week, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke indicated that the chant might soon fade from City Hall. Assuming that his plan to eliminate 1,186 positions from the city's 1992 operating budget survives the Board of Estimates and the City Council, Mr. Schmoke said, the city will have gone as far as it can in reducing its work force.
"We're at a point where if we continue to reduce the number of city employees, we'll have to think about eliminating certain services," the mayor said. "What we're going to have to do instead is think about ways of providing services in different ways."
Mr. Schmoke said that because he thinks the city cannot tolerate further reductions in city services -- such as trash collection and library and recreation programs -- future demands on the budget must be met by making agencies produce more without spending more and by attracting increased state aid.
Mr. Schmoke's comments came last Wednesday, moments after the administration presented the Board of Estimates with the mayor's proposed $1.787 billion operating budget for the 1992 fiscal year beginning July 1.
The budget calls for the elimination of 336 positions from the city payroll. Budget officials say the reduction can be achieved through normal attrition, avoiding the need for layoffs. Another 850 employees would be transferred to the state payroll as part of the scheduled July 1 state takeover of the problem-plagued City Jail.
But some community leaders and elected officials say the need for swift property tax reduction mandates that the city cut its work force even further.
"I think we can still get smaller and have the work still get done," said Councilman John A. Schaefer, D-1st, who was chairman of the council's Budget and Appropriations Committee until he was replaced earlier this month. "Baltimore County is as large as we ++ are, and what do they have, 8,000 employees?"
Baltimore County, which has 692,000 residents, has 12,000 school employees and another 8,000 employees in other departments.
Baltimore City has 736,000 residents. It will have 26,600 employees after the reductions.
"We don't have a choice," said David B. Rudow, vice president of the Baltimore City Taxpayer's Coalition for Fair Property Taxes. "I don't think it is written anywhere in the Baltimore City Code that we have to have 26,000 employees."
Since Mayor Schmoke took office, the city has instituted a number of measures designed to get more services out of scarce revenues.
For example, the city has turned the Baltimore Arena over to private management, initiated the sale of the Baltimore Trolley .. Works to a private company, abolished four fire companies, consolidated the police and fire infirmaries and combined agencies responsible for downtown development.
The Schmoke administration's efforts to improve management practices have received high marks from several publications that evaluate municipal governments.
But if they cannot make further payroll reductions, city officials say, they must find ways of getting more out of the workers they have.
To do that, the mayor has assigned members of his staff to work with the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of business leaders, to develop ways of making several city operations run more efficiently. The study group will examine Baltimore's cash management, data processing systems and the operation of the city's three printing facilities.
William R. Brown Jr., director of finance, said the Schmoke administration has also asked outside companies to examine the city's $100 million employee benefit program and to audit employee health claims to reduce fraudulent claims.
But he said his department did not have the manpower to take the kind of top-to-bottom look at the city's $1.8 billion government that he would like in order to recommend money-saving techniques. And he said he was not convinced it was worth hiring a private consultant.
"We don't know if we spend $250,000, we'll save $2 million. If that were the case, firms would work for free and get paid with a percentage of the savings," Mr. Brown said. "The resources are not available to pay a lot of money in the hopes that we can get it back, so we're working with the private sector which is donating its resources."
Cities across the United States, pressed by financial difficulties of their own, have developed novel alternatives to provide services their constituents have come to expect -- such as trash collection, water supply and police and fire protection.
For example, Seattle contracts with private companies to provide health care, trash collections, building maintenance and vehicle towing -- all services that in Baltimore are performed by municipal workers.
"Our role has become one of setting standards and the values we want to be maintained in performing the service rather than doing the work ourselves," said Mark Duncan Murray, a spokesman for Seattle Mayor Norman B. Rice. "I think every city in the country has had to look at ways to reduce its costs while expanding services."
Because Baltimore has retained a relatively large work force while its population dropped from 905,000 in 1970 to 736,000 last year, no one is saying that the latest round of work force reductions proposed in the 1992 budget will spell an end to the city's chronic budget problems.
Baltimore ranked second among the nation's 50 largest cities in terms of the size of its work force relative to population, with 25.69 workers per 1,000 city residents, according to the November 19, 1990, issue of City and State magazine.
Edward J. Gallagher, budget director, said it was difficult to draw a conclusion from that ranking, however, since Baltimore provides services -- such as water and sewer for Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Howard counties -- that other cities do not.
The mayor has eliminated 841 positions in the first three years of his administration, according to figures provided by the finance department. Should the proposed 1992 city budget be approved with the proposed personnel cuts, the payroll decline would reach 2,027 -- or 7.1 percent of the work force when he took office.
City officials are also hoping that the General Assembly, which will spend part of this summer examining the financial conditions of Maryland's poorer subdivisions, will be persuaded that the city has done about all it can to get its fiscal house in order and is therefore deserving of increased aid.
"We've done a lot of things to help ourselves out," Mr. Gallagher said. "But our revenue base won't support us."