Tough decisions needed at City Hall Budget choices: Long-range solutions to fiscal problems require fortitude.


BALTIMORE HAS some tough decisions to make, but the people elected to make them refuse to do so.

Each spring begins with a dire forecast of an economic crisis that "only a tax increase" can solve. Each spring ends with residents wondering what all the fuss was about -- the expected fiscal disaster having been averted through yet another stopgap measure that further delays the moment of truth.

That $8 million budget deficit Baltimore feared last year at this time was no illusion. Neither is the $18 million shortfall predicted this spring. Continuing losses of population and related reductions in commercial property tax assessments have sliced city revenue. Even with an increase in state funding, Baltimore can't pay for current services unless it finds more money.

Early-retirement incentives that cut the city work-force by nearly 1,000 helped balance the budget last spring. This time, using part of a pension fund surplus exceeding $50 million will help. But those medications only treat the symptoms of what ails Baltimore. This city is waiting for a fiscal cure involving both new revenue measures and spending cuts that its leaders seem too timid to suggest.

Oh, they'll do a lot of talking. Measures before the City Council would expand the city's energy tax and raise the "piggyback" income tax, but there's little likelihood either will pass. And next to nothing is being said about corresponding cuts in spending that must be made to ensure Baltimore not only is able to weather the latest fiscal challenge but is positioned economically to face the future.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke knows the city should shut down and consolidate some recreation centers; it has more per capita than any other city in the nation. Pratt Library officials know they need to modernize and streamline the library branch system. But they're afraid of the public reaction. It's time to get past those fears and openly discuss proposals that will not only save the city money but actually improve the services the city can provide.

At the conclusion of last year's budget-writing process the mayor and council had a chance to assess every city department and specify how each could be made smaller and more efficient. That never occurred. Instead, Mr. Schmoke is preparing yet another budget to keep the city at status quo. What is he afraid of, voter backlash? It's his job to tell the city what it needs, whether people want to hear it or not.

Pub Date: 5/11/97

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