Budget Response Shows Difference Between City and Suburb


Gov. William Donald Schaefer's deficit reduction package last week brought into focus the sharp contrast in the political landscapes of Baltimore City and Baltimore County.

It is not so much the cuts themselves. The $450 million package hit both jurisdictions hard.

State budget analysts say the plan took $17.5 million from Baltimore County. The cuts will cost Baltimore $21 million, according to city budget analysts.

But the reactions to the cuts by the chief executives of the two jurisdictions are a study in the contrasts of their differing styles, of the fiscal pictures confronting them and the constituencies they serve.

At Baltimore's City Hall, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke immediately called for the General Assembly to convene a special session and raise taxes. A day after the cuts were announced, he held a press conference to call the cuts a "tragedy" that would devastate city operations.

The mayor said up to 800 city employees would be laid off. Cutting General Public Assistance also will mean a flood of poor people becoming homeless, reducing state grants could mean library closings, and the loss of school funds may kill a pre-kindergarten program for 1,200 children, he said.

In Baltimore County, county executive Roger B. Hayden, a Republican elected last fall on a wave of protests over government spending, said the cuts may be something county taxpayers support.

Mr. Hayden has scheduled a press conference for tomorrow to detail how he will address the cuts. Last week, he would only say that none of the county's 8,300 general government employees would be laid off.

The differences between the two responses can partly be traced to the fiscal pictures facing each jurisdiction.

Baltimore, which officials say is home to 60 percent of the state's poor, has no surplus to speak of in its $1.7 billion budget.

To make up the $21 million cut by the governor, the city would have to raise the property tax rate -- already twice that of any other Maryland jurisdiction -- by about 26 cents.

With an $11 million undedicated surplus, Mr. Hayden's $1.1 billion budget has more room to absorb some of the budget shortfall.

Baltimore County's budget is not entirely fat and happy.

The county began closing some of its libraries on Sundays only this fall. But the closings were decided last spring -- long before the governor announced his cuts.

Mr. Hayden also has declined to pay firefighters overtime to fill in for co-workers out sick or on vacation, resulting in 43 times this year when at least one of the two fire engine companies in either Towson, Dundalk, Essex and Catonsville has been out of service, fire officials said.

But there are more than balance sheets driving these political engines. There are clear-cut differences in constituencies, or at least in the groups screaming for action.

Baltimore County has been home to one of the most vocal taxpayer protest movements in Maryland, a movement seen as instrumental in the defeat last November of Mr. Hayden's predecessor, Dennis F. Rasmussen and five of seven incumbent county council members.

It also was a base of opposition that helped defeat recommendations proposed by the Linowes commission to raise additional state tax state money for poorer jurisdictions like Baltimore.

John D. O'Neill, the retired Ruxton businessman who championed the tax protest movement and is a vociferous critic of the Linowes plan, has since become an adviser to Mr. Hayden.

As president of the fledgling Maryland Taxpayer's Association Inc., Mr. O'Neill spends much of his time lobbying the General Assembly for additional tax cuts.

By comparison, the city has been a focal point in the rallying call for tax reform, with city officials supporting measures such as those proposed by the Linowes commission.

Advocates for the city say the present tax structure is unfair and should be restructured.

They argue that commuters who live in surrounding counties and work in the city pay their property taxes in the jurisdiction where they live. Ditto suburban residents who come into Baltimore for Orioles games, art museum visits or cultural events.

The county contributes roughly $1 million each year to city cultural institutions, such as the Walters Art Gallery and the National Aquarium, but city officials say the donation falls far short of the county's fair share.

"They [county residents] want to participate in the assets of the city, but they don't want to assist with any of the liabilities," said Baltimore City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, D-2nd.

Mr. Ambridge, acting chairman of the Baltimore Regional Council of Governments, said there is a widening socio-economic gap between the city and the county.

The city does not have the property tax base surrounding counties have, but bears many costs for social ills that suburban jurisdictions do not face, he said.

According to figures provided by the regional council, the city, with a population only slightly larger than Baltimore County, has almost twice as many special education students, 15 times more recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, three times as many homeless children and three times more publicly-assisted housing units, such as Section 8 housing.

Mr. Ambridge said he is disturbed by an attitude of "economic Darwinism" that seems to be prevalent these days among suburban elected officials. "The feeling is, if the city is to survive it will have to be survive on its own," he said.

But he said if the region is to continue to prosper that attitude must be reversed.

"If we don't work together, we're just going to have a bigger hole to dig ourselves out of," he said.

Perhaps the most disturbing statistics are the 1990 U.S. Census figures comparing median household income. In 1960, the city had a median household income of $5,133 while the county's was only slightly higher, $7,214.

By 1990, the county's median household income had jumped to $43,047 -- almost twice that of the $24,357 reported in the city.

$ The gap is widening.

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