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Why Baltimore isn't Detroit

On the surface, the similarities are striking. Two great American cities that swelled in population and wealth in the first half of the 20th century on the strength of heavy manufacturing, places where family-supporting jobs were there for the taking by anyone with a high school degree. Then a long, slow decline spurred by the flight of industry overseas and residents to the suburbs, racial tension, crime, failing schools, disinvestment, unemployment and abandoned houses.

At the end of that road, Detroit filed for bankruptcy on Thursday, by far the largest American municipality to do so. Forty percent of its streetlights don't work, many people don't even think about calling 911 when they need an ambulance, and the city may soon have to sell off the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Baltimore, meanwhile, is cutting property taxes and planning for a $1 billion school construction binge. The population has stabilized and may be growing, and the biggest controversy in town is over how much the city should subsidize developers who want to build a $1 billion, 28-acre office/residential/retail complex on the waterfront.

It's somewhat unusual to look at Baltimore — particularly in the midst of a violent crime wave — and consider its good fortune. But for all of its problems, and there are many, Baltimore has some undeniable strengths. The city has not completely abandoned its industrial-era economy — the Port of Baltimore, for example, remains a singular economic engine — but it has also undergone a profound transformation. Once a steel and shipbuilding town, Baltimore is now one of the great hubs for health care and biomedical research. The presence of the federal government has provided economic stability during that transition. The recent resurgence of the American auto industry came too late to save Detroit from financial ruin.

The other key difference between Baltimore and Detroit, though, is that city officials and residents here have been willing to make difficult decisions that put it on a more sustainable path. Detroit racked up $18 billion in debt because it borrowed money to support its operating costs and because it was unwilling to demand cuts to the lucrative benefits and pension packages its municipal employees enjoyed. Baltimore has a long way to go before it is held up as a model of efficient, lean government, but city leaders, and particularly current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, have made putting the city on firmer fiscal footing a top priority. The mayor's 10-year plan to control costs, broaden the city's revenue stream and lower property taxes offers little short-term political gain and much pain. Her plan to switch future civilian employees to 401(k)-style retirement plans is unlikely to win her many friends. But it is the kind of thing that separates Baltimore from Detroit and puts us on a path to a better future.

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