Say 'no' pay a price; Fighting plan to move city poor may not help suburbs; Sharing works in Minn.; Experts say pooling of tax base stops spread of decline

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HE FOLLOWED his first instinct and went looking for a lawyer.

A better choice might have been an expert who does computer runs of municipal revenue-raising capacity and formulas for regional tax sharing.

He could have ordered a copy of "Baltimore Unbound," a book published last week by the Abell Foundation and the Johns Hopkins University Press, recertifying the terminal condition of Baltimore -- and warning that the surrounding region will follow if its leaders do not courageously and smartly confront the city's decline.

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger sought legal help last week to undo a federal court decree that would send Baltimore public housing tenants to new housing in the county.

Later in the week, Mr. Ruppersberger attempted to get his case before President Clinton, who came to a Pikesville fund-raiser on Wednesday.

The president has been speaking forthrightly these days about the need for white and black, rich and poor Americans to understand each other, a message not necessarily congruent with Mr. Ruppersberger's perceived political needs.

But are those needs completely clear?

If the courts are determined to enforce a dispersal of the poor, Mr. Ruppersberger might be well advised in the long run to consider the proposals made in Baltimore Unbound.

Tax base sharing, more over, might have some immediate political payoff. It works this way: Baltimore and surrounding counties would commit a percentage of tax revenue from new development to the pool. The money would then be distributed based on each partner's revenue-raising capacity: wealthy counties have more capacity than a city where the base is shrinking.

Three thoughtful men of considerable experience in government say Mr. Ruppersberger is not acting in the region's best interest:

* David Rusk, author of "Baltimore Unbound," says Baltimore area county leaders should attend to the trends. The bell tolls for the suburbs as surely as it does for the inner city.

* Myron Orfield, a state legislator from Minnesota who helped to engineer the only regional tax-sharing compact in the nation, says counties like Mr. Ruppersberger's actually become advocates of rational housing policies and of tax base sharing once they see the computer runs.

Baltimore County would receive considerable sums of new money from such a scheme -- and the county would be asked to accept no more than its "fair share" of the region's poor.

* Maryland's House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Cumberland Democrat, called for calm and rational appraisals after listening attentively Tuesday as Messrs. Rusk and Orfield made a presentation to the Greater Baltimore Committee and 200 of its guests.

"The tragedy," Mr. Taylor said afterward, "is that people will lock up and take positions before they read the book."

Mr. Rusk's idea or one like it will sell, the speaker said, "if people in surrounding areas keep open minds while they get educated. .

No mincing words

Mr. Rusk made no effort to soften the pitch on that score: New social and government systems will be needed to reverse the decline of Baltimore and the surrounding region. What his book demands, in truth, is radically new thinking about the fundamental structure of the region. The lesson, he says, is not exclusive to Baltimore: A substantial number of U.S. cities have slipped past the point of no return -- and threaten surrounding suburbs in the process.

A scare story, right? Yes and no.

A generation of anti-poverty programs, arriving in many guises and driven by good impulses for the most part, have failed to give a sustained lift.

"It doesn't happen," Mr. Rusk said. "It doesn't happen anywhere. It's as if those programs are trying to help people run up the down escalator. No matter how hard you run, the escalator comes down faster and faster and faster. Some will be able to run hard enough, but they will jump off and leave. Those left behind are in more difficult straits."

Mayors, congressmen and committees such as the GBC don't like to face the fact that a generation of efforts have failed to arrest the decline. What has happened has been meliorative and laudable -- heroic in cities like Baltimore -- but more fundamental approaches are needed. Donald P. Hutchinson, the GBC's director, says the state has been setting aside the question of regionalism -- and adopting it informally -- since 1967. A revision of the Maryland Constitution called for regionalism, but that call was rejected. And here we are.

Patterns of decline similar to Baltimore's are detectable in the so-called inner ring of suburbs (read Baltimore County), Mr. Rusk says. The clearest manifestation of what is coming for such areas, according to Mr. Orfield, is relatively high taxes (as in the city) and relatively low services (as in the city). Most jobs are being created now in the outer suburban rings, where taxes are still relatively low and services higher.

What can stabilize the region?

"People tend to support these things out of self-interest," Mr. Orfield said. "The more they understand the dynamic they're in, the better hearing you get."

For example, inner-ring neighborhoods in Essex, Dundalk, Lansdowne and others are vulnerable to what he called called "down-market pressures" -- lower rents and housing values associated with continued movement to the exurbs and the arrival of less- affluent families anxious to move out.

"People see social and economic distress rolling out of the city," he said, and the "dynamic" he warns of becomes clearer. He readily acknowledged that racial antagonism and fear of crime make the "fair share" housing proposals difficult. Tax-based sharing is a "non-starter," too, until the computer runs are done.

For the older suburbs in the Minneapolis compact developed by Mr. Orfield and others, the pool contributes as much as 15 percent of some local budgets. Not surprisingly, the Dutch Ruppersbergers of that area see regionalism as a life ring, he said. The pool, which had only $8 million or so in the first year, now stands at $300 million.

The old suburbs win

"The biggest winners are the inner, older suburbs [such as Baltimore County]. They get resources from the region. They get money to rehab blighted houses, to rebuild streets and sewers," Mr. Orfield said.

The outer-ring suburbs that contribute the most, newer and healthier, "don't like it worth a damn," Mr. Orfield acknowledged. "They think it's communism."

But they are winners, nonetheless. The city stops "coring out." Jobs there are stabilized. Pension funds heavily invested in cities -- yet often owned by suburban workers -- are protected. Down-market pressures subside because houses are fixed, services improve and taxes fall in the city and the inner suburbs. Sprawl, no friend of any jurisdiction, can be throttled back.

If the city and allied counties can join forces to legislate such a compact, the political value shifts for Mr. Ruppersberger: Thus, the argument that his personal, political interest is best served by the planner who shows how the new structure pays off.

Still, Mr. Rusk says it is unlikely that county executives will accept his arguments. He suggests a regional body legislated by the General Assembly. Coalitions of city and inner-ring suburban legislators could make it happen.

If they do, they will gain some measure of control over the current chaos -- and over the possibility that federal courts will order them to comply, sending everyone in search of legal advice. The Rusk-Orfield plan offers order and control.

Mr. Rusk returns, finally, to his central image:

"The role of the regional body is to rewire the down escalator so that it's moving up."

All the smart money says it can't possibly work -- now.

Speaker Taylor says:

"All we have to do is look around us to see the ugliness -- physical, spiritual, economic. I don't think anybody will want to go into the 21st century condoning this ugliness."

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Sun.

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