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Mayor won't cut city markets' subsidy


Three months after Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke turned over management of Baltimore's historic neighborhood markets to a private corporation, he is proposing the same $1.1 million city subsidy for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Mr. Schmoke dismantled the 200-year-old city markets bureaucracy, which he acknowledged had become more costly and inefficient under his stewardship.

Five of the six markets were turned over in March to a private, nonprofit corporation to manage. The sixth, Lafayette Market in West Baltimore, is being run by a separate group.

At the time, the mayor said his goal was to phase out the yearly subsidy over five years. The subsidy had grown from $700,000 a year to slightly more than $1 million.

But the Schmoke administration's proposed $2.3 billion spending plan for fiscal 1996, includes $1.1 million for the markets. The money has been set aside from an account reserved for "civic promotion" instead of from the now-defunct markets budget.

"We're not going to pull the financial rug from under them before giving them an opportunity to work toward reducing the subsidy," said Clinton R. Coleman, the mayor's spokesman. He added that Mr. Schmoke "never realistically expected that the funding level would be reduced in the first year, but hopes it will come down in the future."

The proposal has prompted questioning from some City Council members, including Joseph J. DiBlasi, who represents South Baltimore's 6th District and is co-chair of the council's budget committee. The council will begin hearings on the budget this morning.

"The markets are supposed to be privatized now," Mr. DiBlasi said. "I'm curious about why we're continuing to spend money on them."

From his first days in office, Mr. Schmoke recognized that the nation's oldest continuously run markets were beginning to lose their luster. But even as he deliberated putting them into private hands, the management staff grew, and two proposed rent increases were scrapped under political pressure.

The result was that the aging markets struggled to attract customers and had been run at a deficit for the past few years.

Stall owners selling everything from whole chickens to home-baked bread at the Northeast, Belair, Cross Street, Broadway and Hollins markets generally have been enthusiastic about the changes under the private corporation.

"Everyone is working together now," said Bill Richardson, a third-generation grocer at East Baltimore's Northeast Market. "It's a completely different situation."

But some said they are still waiting for better marketing and promotion of the markets. "I think they're pretty much exactly the same as they used to be," said Carole Chinn, owner of a cheese shop at Cross Street Market in South Baltimore.

The $1.1 million earmarked for the year ahead will be used to help with marketing and with structural repairs and improvements at the five markets.

Mr. DiBlasi said he also plans to raise other budget concerns, among them the amount of money that has been earmarked for renting cars and a $5 million account for "miscellaneous expenses."

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