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The truth nobody wants to hear: Baltimore city and county must merge (and City Hall should probably be in Towson)

Baltimore faces difficult conditions ahead - a falling population, a high rate of gun violence and an uncertain financial future.
Baltimore faces difficult conditions ahead - a falling population, a high rate of gun violence and an uncertain financial future. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

Thank you for reminding us of a major daily newspaper’s highest calling: saying out loud a truth we all need to hear but which no politician is going to say. It is past time, by decades, to merge Baltimore City and Baltimore County. This is what the rest of the nation did with its major cities generations ago, leaving Baltimore largely alone (with St. Louis) as a city left to support itself while a wealthy surrounding county benefits from its resources without paying for them. Consolidating the jurisdictions is the only path down which Baltimore can tread without heading inevitably into bankruptcy — a ruinous prospect for the entire region (“Let’s not explain away Baltimore’s population loss. It really is a bad sign,” March 23).

Baltimore cannot continue to burden those within it’s archaic boundaries with property tax rates double those of our neighbors and expect to survive with its financial house or physical infrastructure intact. City businesses cannot continue to be preyed upon by a desperate City Hall anxious to wrest more money out of an ever-decreasing pool of enterprises. Those businesses will continue to relocate or simply cease operations. Nor can our ever-decreasing population continue to shoulder the burden of pensions negotiated in happier times when the city’s population was 20 percent to 30 percent larger than it is today, the greater portion of the missing having relocated to the county. None of this can continue; the status quo is unsustainable.

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It is also true that Baltimore has lost the economic, political and organizational clout to annex Baltimore County. The center of gravity has shifted, and the “New Baltimore” should and must reflect that. It’s a hard reality for us traditionalists to swallow, but it is more appropriate for City Hall to be located in Towson than where it is today. But frankly, that’s window-dressing. Much more importantly, we cannot impose the same set of dysfunctional policies and managerial mediocrity upon county residents and businesses as we experience here in the city today. Baltimore is a failed model of municipal management. Just ask anyone who’s had to straighten out their water bill. Yes, part of our failure is precisely because of this artificial and disadvantageous split between city and county, but part of our failure is entirely internal to ourselves, and county residents are right to fear that their own services would suffer a similar fate if the management model isn’t substantially changed to reflect county practices and county personnel, not city ones.

The vested interests against such a massive reorganization are overwhelming, yet we should endeavor not to be overwhelmed. Everywhere you turn will be individuals, departments, administrations and entire constituencies screaming about how this cannot be done, by which they really mean it will disadvantage them or in many cases will render them obsolete. That is acceptable, and makes none of this impossible, merely extremely painful and difficult. It is time to think big, not because we want to but because we have to. The future of the city, and therefore of the financial health and vitality of the entire area, is at stake. There is no path to solvency for Baltimore as it currently exists. Bankruptcy is inevitable. The sky is indeed falling under the combined weight of pension obligations, a declining tax base, crumbling infrastructure and yes, an uninspired leadership with which we must not burden our new fellow city residents.

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In a rational world, this process would start now while everyone’s head is still above water. However, that is not how change of this magnitude happens. Like any garden-variety alcoholic, we must find ourselves face down in the gutter before we do what’s necessary to get ourselves back on our feat, and despite all our woes, we are not quite there yet. This ride, which is a sad and alarming one for any of us who live here, must end in insolvency before this conversation with our county neighbors will be viewed as in their interests just as it is in ours. At that point, we’ll all have to work harder and pay more in order to dig the region out of its hole. In the meantime, we must watch companies like Amazon pass us by without a second thought, and world-class organizations like Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland struggle to convince out-of-town talent to consider living here. New technology start-ups will chose other cities that are economically viable because we aren’t. Until we get our house in order, we can’t hope to attract new players of consequence. That’s a tragedy because a reorganized county-integrated Baltimore City remains in theory what one of our former mayor’s failed slogans promised: The Greatest City In America.

Robyne Lyles and Mark Thistel, Baltimore

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