For Baltimore County residents suffering from a civic inferiority complex, a milestone will be reached around the year 2000.
That's when, planners say, the county's population will outstrip Baltimore City's, ending 50 years of growth that has transformed the county from a rural horse collar around Baltimore's urban core to a bedroom for Baltimore commuters and finally to an entity that could qualify as a city in its own right.
But that growth has brought urban problems as well as benefits and, despite its population growth, the county is looking at serious economic problems and may wind up with less political clout than it ever had.
At its peak in 1950, the city boasted a population of 949,708, when the county had a mere 270,273 residents. Flight from the city during the '60s and '70s brought the two jurisdictions much closer by the 1990 census, when the city's population stood at 736,014 and the county's was 692,133.
By 2010, planners say, the city's population will decline to 698,000, while the county's will grow to 728,276.
The county's increasing population is not as city-oriented as it once was. In fact, by 1990 only one-third of county commuters worked in the city, according to Census Bureau figures. The rest worked in Baltimore County or the surrounding jurisdictions.
But the county's growth slowed considerably during the 1980s, and the demographic trends now have "tremendous implications," said Donald P. Hutchinson, the former Baltimore County executive who heads the private Maryland Business Council.
The county's main problems now, Mr. Hutchinson said, stem from the changing nature of its population. The largest growth has been at the oldest and youngest ends of the spectrum -- senior citizens and schoolchildren who require more services.
Baltimore County's overall population grew only 5 percent between 1980 and 1990, but the number of people 65 to 74 years old increased by 36 percent, and the number of children under 5 years old rose 32 percent.
With the exception of black families who moved out of the city during the 1980s and accounted for most of the county's population growth, the county is not attracting many young dTC homeowners. They are seeking cheaper housing in Carroll and Harford counties and even southern Pennsylvania.
This trend disturbs county leaders because the county's economic growth and personal income have stagnated, which translates into tax revenues that are hard-pressed to keep up with the demand for services. Older voters generally are less willing to support new taxes, and a 1990 tax revolt that ousted County Executive Dennis F. Rasmussen and five of seven council incumbents has council members and state legislators worried.
"The county is going to have tremendous financial problems in the next 12 years. I'm not sure increased population helps that," Mr. Hutchinson said.
The city's problem, he said, will be to keep enough jobs home to preserve its economic viability. "The city must worry about maintaining an employment base," he said.
D.C. suburbs to be larger
The political implications of the changes for the next century are uncertain, officials say, and there are several forces at work.
By the millennium, Baltimore County and the city will be Maryland's third and fourth largest subdivisions, outstripped by the fast-growing Washington suburbs of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, and hemmed in by even faster growing counties farther away from both urban cores. Planners in those jurisdictions predict populations exceeding 800,000 each by the year 2000, with Montgomery nearing 900,000.
Baltimore County theoretically will have the population to wrest a legislative district away from Baltimore, reduce the sharing of legislative and congressional districts and emerge as a more powerful subdivision. The county currently has seven legislative districts of its own and one that it shares with Carroll County.
City legislators have protected their turf by extending five of their eight districts into the county, with county voters a distinct minority in each district into which they were placed. As a result, said Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the change caused by the county's added population is "not as dramatic as it could have been."
Stunned at the thought of her city being smaller than the county, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke put it more bluntly. "The city's still the city -- it's cohesive." The county's neighborhoods tend to be associated with the city neighborhoods they border, she said, adding, "The county is an extension of the city."
While Democrats have a 2 1/2 -to-1 registration edge in the county, redistricting has caused many of those voters to be lost to county Democratic legislative candidates. As a result, some Republican county legislators think the change will help their party, particularly if city Democrats continue raiding close-in county areas for Democratic voters.
Even so, said County Executive Roger B. Hayden, a Republican, the county should use its population to justify getting its legislative districts back. But it's an uphill battle because of Baltimore County's lack of clout in the General Assembly.
As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Del. John S. Arnick of Dundalk was one of the most influential legislators in the General Assembly. But Mr. Arnick resigned in January after being nominated to a judgeship. He later withdrew after being accused of making sexist remarks.
Mr. Arnick's departure left Baltimore County without a single committee chairmanship -- a virtual requirement for leverage on issues of regional importance. "We need political leadership now, more than ever before, and we don't have it," said Del. Lawrence A. LaMotte, a western county Democrat.
While it's encroached upon by the city within, Baltimore County is also under pressure from the faster growing counties around it -- Howard, Carroll and Harford. In another redistricting, they, too, could reach into parts of Baltimore County, politicians say.
Talking to Barbara
Meanwhile, the shared districts are forcing the county to develop an uneasy relationship with city legislators.
"I'm starting to talk a lot to Barbara Hoffman," Mr. Hayden said of the Democratic city senator whose 42nd District swallowed part of Pikesville in the last redistricting.
The Pikesville situation shows the potential for city-county conflicts.
"It's a horror the way we've been disenfranchised," said county Del. Richard Rynd, who said that when tough decisions have to be made about competing interests, Senator Hoffman will go with her larger city constituency at the expense of smaller county neighborhoods.
Senator Hoffman disagreed. On school aid, or even conflicting city-county interests on highway projects, she said, the new shared districts can help "break down barriers."
She'll be looking at education aid based on what each school requires, and not by which jurisdiction the school is in, she said. Representing two jurisdictions will cause her to work harder to find compromises and discourage unyielding positions that come from representing just one group, she added.
"Baltimore County should stop worrying about Baltimore City and start worrying about its younger people moving out," she said.
Other politicians talk more about "regional" approaches to problems, particularly in the face of a population and power shift to Montgomery and Prince George's counties and the Southern Maryland counties that border them.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, whose 3rd Congressional District winds like a meandering stream along the northern and eastern city-county borders, then turns southwest to Howard County, also said that the county's growth won't change things.
"The strength of Baltimore is in its economic base," the city-bred Democrat said. "We no longer think of Baltimore as just the city. We think of the whole metropolitan area."