Advertisement
Editorial

Making Baltimore City government work: Take the little steps | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Comptroller Bill Henry asks Baltimore City budget director Robert Cenname questions following the presentation of the 2023 budget to the Board of Estimates in April. File. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun).

For much of the past century, there has been a dominant philosophy in Baltimore City government that in order to get big things done, the mayor needed to have extraordinary powers. And boy, the city’s mayor has them. From the power to set water and sewer rates to approval of multimillion-dollar contracts through the Board of Estimates, where the mayor controls three of five votes, the city’s chief executive wields far greater power within his or her domain than any other local elected official in the state — a level of authority above and beyond most fellow mayors across the country. Yet this kind of unchecked power not only invites potential corruption and abuse, it raises an even more basic question: Can one person properly manage a major city facing as many difficult challenges as Baltimore?

That question comes to mind this week as the Baltimore City Council ponders a charter amendment that is relatively simple and straightforward in its ambition but potentially instructive in its implications. Under the amendment, the responsibility for paying third-party bills (meaning everything but payroll and debt service) would fall to the city’s comptroller instead of its finance department. Indeed, the intention here is simply to transfer what is a 10-person office paying an average of 10,400 invoices a month to the oversight of Bill Henry — assuming it is approved the City Council and a majority of city voters on the November ballot. The move is far from earthshaking, given that the comptroller’s office had this same oversight prior to a 1964 charter amendment.

Advertisement

The average Baltimorean can surely be forgiven for not paying much attention to such a proposal, certainly not in a city that is grappling with far more urgent issues, including 300-plus homicides per year. But as we’ve observed before, Baltimore’s woes do not begin and end with public safety. There is also the matter of getting the little things done, including regular recycling collection. Mayor Brandon Scott pledged to make fighting gun violence the centerpiece of his administration, and that makes perfect sense. But that is far from the only challenge facing a city beset by a multitude of woes stemming from concentrated poverty, historic racism, job losses, substance abuse and the like. Wouldn’t it be great to at least get the bills paid on time? Apparently, that’s not happening now. Mr. Henry promises it will get done in the future. He deserves the chance to try.

This kind of decentralization of authority might well yield results in other areas. It’s worth exploring. And it’s certainly a more productive avenue than the sort of “quick fix” promises that one hears from the usual suspects. One of the latest, that Baltimore’s ills would be cured by essentially cutting the city’s property tax rate in half over a six-year period, ought to be viewed with deep suspicion. Property taxes are too high, there’s no question about that. But any proposed charter amendment that would reduce the rate so substantially without regard to extenuating circumstances like COVID-19 is problematic. In this case, it’s far better for voters to hold elected officials including Mayor Scott accountable for property tax reductions. Take the authority out of all elected officials’ hands and you are bound to get something like California’s Proposition 13. That voter referendum succeeded in cutting property taxes, but it caused other taxes to increase disproportionately, hurting low-income and minority workers; raised housing prices; and decreased government services. It also remains too popular among commercial and residential property owners to roll back.

Advertisement

Good government is hard. Letting economic disparities, failing infrastructure, violent crime and other hardships facing urban centers run their miserable course is relatively easy. One can sense the eyes of readers glazing even while typing the words, “accounts payable.” But let us not ignore the little things. That Mr. Scott and Mr. Henry can see eye to eye on the matter of how best to pay the bills ought to be regarded as modestly encouraging sign of power sharing. A city that can meet its obligation to vendors might just be a city that can hold its police officers accountable, that can chip away at substandard housing and improve the quality of life, that can attract employers and support public education — and maybe, just maybe, reduce gun violence.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


Advertisement