Supergovernment

The Baltimore Sun

Marylanders want great services with low taxes, but they can't have it both ways. There are measures we could take, but some of them make too much sense to be enacted. For example, we could save billions of dollars without raising taxes by combining Baltimore and its surrounding counties into one consolidated metropolitan government.

Imagine the city and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Carroll counties as a single jurisdiction. Taxpayers would easily save billions through the elimination of unnecessary, redundant functions. And the citizens would likely see a vast improvement in services with no tax increase - and in fact a probable tax savings. As a bonus, it would also eliminate the need for slot machine revenue. What's more, with 2.6 million residents, the combined area would recategorize Baltimore as one of the top-tier consolidated economic centers of the nation, which would generate even more industry and revenue, and more federal tax support.

What prevents this from taking place? Politics. The region's citizens and government leaders need to put aside irrational objections and try to understand the importance of acting soon.

Counties are obsolete

Counties in Maryland were very important - in the largely agrarian 19th and early 20th centuries. With the advent of industrialization, these political subdivisions became increasingly obsolete as economic entities, as citizens began to freely traverse boundaries for work, residence and recreation.

As the forthcoming 2010 census will reveal, racial and economic segregation between city and suburb is rapidly dissipating, and the city is further reduced as the center of key mercantile opportunities in the region. In essence, our entire economy has changed, but the structure of government has not.

Now the global economy and the Internet have made it very difficult to distinguish national boundaries, let alone metropolitan areas or cities. Yet we still hang on to these political relics. It is costing us billions in unnecessary taxes and lost growth opportunities, and it weakens our ability to promote the region and its resources.

In Baltimore, metropolitan cooperation started years ago, with the development of the water supply. This extended to other essential systems, such as the standardization of fire suppression equipment across the region. Cooperative purchasing for fire, police and public works equipment also proved that great savings could be realized through mutual cooperation.

We have a fine Baltimore Metropolitan Council, and its work is commendable. However, it cannot effect the cost savings that could be realized through real government consolidation.

Big savings

Consider the potential effects in a single area: criminal justice. Instead of five circuit courts, we would have one, with a single jury pool serving 2.6 million people. Trials could be handled speedily, because of the geographic flexibility of the personnel hearing or handling cases, and the availability of an ample pool of peers. Speedier trials mean less jail overcrowding.

Bigger financial savings could follow through the conjoining of local police, fire, public works, schools, central services and other functions into one entity. Immediately, all of the redundant government costs in human resources, legal and accounting services, to name just a few, would disappear.

True, there are sometimes good reasons for jurisdictions to operate on a smaller scale, especially when it comes to school governance. But even in this area, from a financial point of view, it makes sense to think big. At the very least, school districts stand to gain by pooling their resources on items purchased in bulk.

Imagine the leverage that could be brought to bear on medical insurers by combining government employee health care premiums. Imagine the power of Smart Growth initiatives. Imagine how a unified 911 system could reliably cover the places where people live, shop or visit in a national homeland emergency. Imagine how expertise in government could be shared among more people over a wider area. The public health system could then more comprehensively address regional health issues and emergencies that do not conveniently follow county lines.

The way we live now

This arrangement is already the norm in progressive cities such as San Antonio and Miami, where true metropolitan taxing authorities and properly scaled government economies are in place. It accurately reflects the way we live in the 21st century in this country, and it is perhaps the only way we will all be able to afford government services in the very near future.

There is a common misconception that suburban residents are paying fewer taxes and getting better services, and that this works well. Both ideas are dubious at best, considering the general price differentials in housing and its impact on property taxes (higher suburban prices result in higher taxes). What's more, because other state taxes are based on income and are being redistributed to support poorer jurisdictions, these arguments ring hollow.

In any event, the disparity in city and suburban wealth may be moot in the next five years as our inner-ring suburbs continue to age and become populated with in-migrants who are substantially poorer than the out-migrants. This seems to be happening at an accelerated pace right now in Baltimore County.

Meanwhile, in order to survive, the suburban governments continue to cater to the unrelenting pressure of developers, who, by continuing their destruction of open spaces for inferior tract housing at greater distances from the city, are further exacerbating the cost of water, sewer and natural resources, schools and services for all citizens.

Collectively, we no longer can afford to have separate, self-interested suburban governments doing the bidding for the region. The state has the power to make these changes; all that's needed is sufficient political will.

Carl Hyman, a former city planner, is immediate past president of the Tuscany-Canterbury Neighborhood Association. His e-mail is carlhyman1@gmail.com.

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