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Taxes are investment in Baltimore's future


THIS YEAR, Baltimore faces a simple choice: Do we want to continue our march forward or do we want to revert to our long, slow downward slide?

That is what this year's city budget is about. And our long-term strategy for Baltimore's comeback to greatness hinges on the outcome.

I didn't run for this office to manage Baltimore's decline or to wallow in the nostalgic memory of a distant glory. And I don't think that's why anyone voted for me.

I promised the people of this city that, together, we could and would do whatever it takes to restore justice, to protect the lives of our people in every neighborhood, to remake a city where children can play in front of their own homes and walk to schools without fear of death or drugs or stray bullets.

Together, we are raising this city up. Up from drugs, up from violence, up from self-pity and despair to make it the safest and greatest big city in America in the eyes of the world and in the eyes of the grandmothers and grandfathers who, once again, will be able to enjoy the simple dignified reward of being able to sit on their own stoop on a soft summer night.

Over the last 10 violent years, we lost 17 percent of our private job base and 12 percent of our population. During the last decade, we cut one in five city-funded jobs just to balance our budget from year to year. But the incremental tinkering that produced this reduction, without a plan to invest in improvement, did nothing to stop Baltimore's steady deterioration.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Other cities have made big changes, and so can Baltimore. New Orleans reduced crime by 36 percent from 1995 to 2000, and property values soared -- with property tax revenues growing by 19 percent. New York City experienced similar growth, with crime dropping by 41 percent over the same period and property values increasing by 18 percent.

These cities succeeded by making the investment in reducing crime that we are making now. But it won't be easy. Simply beginning this turnaround was hard. Yet we did it and, already, we are seeing the results. Baltimore is leading the nation in the rate of reduction of violent crime and, as a result, we are seeing other benefits.

Last year, we created more jobs than we lost for the first time in 11 years. Our residential real estate market is booming. Our kids' reading scores are improving faster than in any other jurisdiction in the state. And we have secured huge investments from the state and the federal governments in our comeback strategy -- huge investments in drug treatment, in additional police and prosecutors, in schools, in the job skills of our people and in attracting the better-paying jobs available in the new economy.

But it will take a few years before the payoff from these important investments is reflected in our city's growing and healthier revenue base. Our mission -- at this early stage -- is to maintain our new local commitment to public safety, to the restoration of drug-free neighborhoods and to continue, during these early turnaround years, the important work that we have all started: the creation of a safer, cleaner more just city.

Despite the tough decisions we have made -- like closing fire stations, Neighborhood Service Centers and cutting every city agency, with the exception of police, fire and the schools -- we cannot get the job done without some additional financial help from the people and institutions of our city.

As many counties have done, I am asking for an increase in the local income tax rate, which is the lowest in the region. And as many other cities have done -- along with Montgomery and Prince George's counties -- I am asking our nonprofit institutions to pay the same rate that businesses currently pay on their energy bills to help pay for the city services they have been receiving for years.

None of us enjoys paying a little more in taxes. But none of us wants to live in a city that is dirty and dangerous.

None of us enjoys paying more. But none of us can sit back and allow our city to be a place where toddlers are shot in their own homes by warring drug dealers.

None of us likes to make any greater financial sacrifice than we already make to live in the city. But, then again, none of us put our lives on the line every day like our police officers do to make our city a safer, more just place. And if the thought of an increased local income tax bothers you, don't think of it as a tax increase -- think of it as an investment. An investment that will save lives and an investment that will be repaid in the better times that will come soon, when a growing, rebounding revenue base allows us to get it back to you in yearly and steady property tax reductions.

Our long-term goal is justice and our long-term strategy begins with restoring public safety in every neighborhood so that our tax base and population can rebound to support other improvements in city living.

Baltimore is heading in the right direction, but only we can make the continued commitment it takes now -- in this early going -- to return our city to its greatness.

Martin O'Malley is mayor of Baltimore.

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