Do we need regionalism? Well, yes, no and maybe


JUST WHEN folks are getting comfortable with the notion that a regional approach to government is the last great hope for Baltimore city, the Schaefer administration and the General Assembly are quietly considering withdrawing state support of the Regional Council of Governments.

And if the state retreat happens, chances are that local government members will cut back their subsidies, too, thus ending the council (formerly the Regional Planning Council) as it now exists. All this is happening backstage as the council is preparing to move into its spiffy new headquarters, the refurbished Greyhound station on Howard Street.

Frank A.DeFilippoThe state has already cut its annual contribution to the body by about 25 percent, from $336,000 to $258,000, as part of the new frugality. And in its final committee report, the General Assembly recommended that the state find ways of redistributing its subsidy of the council to local governments. The idea has received a wink of connivance from Schaefer administration budget officials.

And as the budget blues deepen, Baltimore and the surrounding counties that make up the Council of Governments -- Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard -- may decide they have greater needs for money than supporting just another overblown government agency.

Three bookshelf reports -- the Goldsecker Foundation's

"Baltimore 2000," the Greater Baltimore Committee's "State of Baltimore" and the Abell Foundation's "Baltimore and Beyond" all arrive at pretty much the same conclusion: Baltimore's going to hell in a handcart. And to bail out the city, a financial deal must be cut among Baltimore and the surrounding counties. Put another way, the dreaded Big R word -- regionalism.

For the newly arrived and those who just don't know or care, Baltimore is one of the only major cities in the country that is not attached to a county. Moreover, because of the datelines on the three reports, the authors couldn't foresee that the money crunch in Maryland has overtaken the counties. The state is hundreds of millions of dollars short. Baltimore County played a shell game with its tax structure to raise more money. Howard increased property taxes. And Anne Arundel was barely able to hold the line.

Besides, elected officials are still interpreting last November's election results as a stern Dutch-uncle warning to stay in their own back yards and mind their own business. The idea of regionalism, for example, flourished when Baltimore County Executive Dennis Rasmussen was chairman of the Regional Council of Governments and Elizabeth Bobo was executive of Howard County. Both got the old heave-ho, in some measure, perhaps, because they were viewed as bullish on Baltimore.

But the key question is this: Do we really need the Regional

Council of Governments? And the answer is both yes and no. No, there's no need for a top-heavy bureaucracy that's spending nearly $10 million a year to produce very little the public can actually see. The council functions as an intergovernmental clearing house, sort of tidying up loose ends. But its only real mandate is to present a general regional development plan once every five years, a statistician's turn-on but hardly up there on the best-seller list with Kitty Kelley.

But yes, the metropolitan area needs a regional council of some kind to serve as a forum for issues of common interest -- mutual problems such as transportation, housing, water and sewer and the environment.

Yet it's difficult to envision how a regional council in any fashion could function without state participation. The state runs virtually all transportation, from MTA buses to beltways. It operates the Metro, and it's now in the light rail business. Baltimore County residents pay city water bills. The state is responsible for the air we breathe. In short, the state is in the quality-of-life business.

Right now, the counties surrounding Baltimore appear to be backing away from the idea of regionalism, in part because boom times are in remission and they have severe problems of their own. Moreover, county residents are fretting because urban (city) problems are seeping over county lines.

So maybe the best thing to do would be to put the Council of Governments right where it was 25 years ago, back in the state Office of Planning. That way, the concept of regionalism may survive even if the Regional Council of Governments doesn't.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes every other week on Maryland politics and issues.

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