Will surrounding counties collaborate or compete with Baltimore City?

This is an exciting time for the people of Baltimore. With a new mayor and a new City Council, fresh opportunities and challenges are on the public agenda. Perhaps it is timely for the new council to have a little insight as to the prevalent dynamic that has and will affect the city's ability to effectively confront the issues of the moment. It is a dynamic that few understand and seldom consider when decisions are made.

Unlike virtually every other city in the United States other than St. Louis, Baltimore City is a stand-alone city. It is not a part of a county, but it is bordered by counties that in many ways are bigger than big cities. Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard Counties have around 2 million residents combined and a land mass of close to 2,000 square miles. Baltimore City has about 630,000 residents and covers 90 square miles. What's more, the counties' chief elected officials, county executives, have enormous powers that are as great or greater than Baltimore's mayor.


From the 1940s to the 1970s, residents of several Maryland counties voted to create "charter governments," or what is commonly called "Home Rule Governments." In each case they chose to give their county executives enormous powers, particularly over the county budgets. The Maryland executives are given even more power than comparable executives around the nation because there are very few small municipalities in these counties with which to share governmental responsibility. In fact, Baltimore County and Howard County have none.

Why is this at all relevant to the new mayor and City Council? Actually, almost nothing else is more relevant. County executives are ambitious people. They have personal ambitions, and they have ambitions for their county. They want their counties to be efficient, and by almost every measure they are. They want to see their counties have top quality schools; while they do not control the school systems, about 50 percent of all county revenue goes to the schools. What the executives frequently hold themselves accountable for is economic growth. A growing tax base allows executives to provide services to their constituents with limited financial and political pain.


County executives know that real economic growth comes from within, either organically or with companies moving from neighboring localities. If you are a business in a city like Jacksonville, Fla., or Phoenix, Ariz., that encompasses hundreds of square miles, there is frequently the feeling of "no harm no foul." Businesses move but remain in the city. Not in Baltimore. If you move from your current location to another, you probably are leaving the city and moving to a nearby county.

Here is the bottom line: Baltimore is a great city — different from all others. It does not share in the wealth of the counties next door. The counties have land; the city has little of it. The counties have space to grow; the city must tear down or renovate old buildings before new growth can occur. The region shares a workforce. Our public transportation system and roadways are built to move people from one place to another for work. When the city makes tax policy or wage policy or zoning decisions or subsidizes development, sometimes the beneficiary is the county next door. It has been said that nothing in politics or in government happens in isolation. This is more true in Baltimore than in any other city in the nation.

By all accounts, the people of Baltimore have just elected a very dynamic group of leaders. Conventional wisdom tells us that they have a great chance to do good things. All of us hope that they will. As they deliberate over the great issues of our time — wages, housing , education, transportation and more — cause and effect must be top of mind. Cause and effect in our town is measured a little differently here than elsewhere. When decisions are made here, will our big county neighbors become collaborators or competitors?

Donald P. Hutchinson ( is president and CEO of The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore; he previously served as president of the Greater Baltimore Committee and was Baltimore county executive from 1978 to 1986.