Lowered Expectations in Baltimore

A great swathe of the intellectual establishment has come around to viewing Baltimore through Calvert-colored glasses. Now that he need no longer fear the electoral wrath of the unions, even Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke (D) is making approving noises about adopting privatization as one means of introducing an element of value for money into the delivery of services. The Baltimore Sun recently editorialized that the 1999 mayoral candidates’ views on privatization were of “particular importance.” And around the new year, the Baltimore City Paper – hardly a known booster of right-wing causes – gave extensive coverage to the privatization issue, acknowledging Calvert to be a local leader in this respect.

But what can we actually expect from the future? The truth is, not very much for, sadly, the pols lag in ideas.

Mayoral Candidates

We recently sent a survey to a number of the people who in recent weeks have in one way or another been discussed as possible mayoral candidates. Surveys were sent to seven people. Only one was returned (see page 8). Two individuals demurred on the grounds that they were not running. As for the others, their silence on the issues is a sad commentary on their unwillingness to risk taking an unpopular stand. Is this reticence what is required to take us into the 21st century?

Union City

The stultifying lack of imagination shown by Baltimore leaders over the past decade or so means that Baltimore is one of very few major American cities to have made no modifications whatsoever to the means of municipal-service delivery. Call it Union City – a city utterly dependent on state and federal handouts and a vast public sector with no interest in reform.

For example, the mayor has formed a “Millennium Group” to examine ways to enhance municipal efficiency. But a handout from a recent MG presentation stresses that “labor participation is vital” and that “partnership with labor is essential to success.” This is not indicative of a willingness to tackle entrenched interests.

Likewise, the city’s past flirtations with privatization have been tame to the point of absurdity. In 1992, then-Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge (D-2nd) introduced a (failed) ordinance mandating that the privatization of any function would have to save 20 percent before being allowed to proceed. The bill also decreed that any contractors overcoming this hurdle would have to include “provisions, if feasible, for the hiring of displaced [city] employees.”

The standard city obfuscation in the face of such arguments is to claim that generous transfer payments are necessary because Baltimore is home to a disproportionate number of the state’s poor. First, this does not explain the reluctance to save taxpayer funds by contracting out services. Second, it does not explain the need for ever increasing city expenditure. City residents’ income has remained more or less constant over the past few years. From 1992 through 1997, median household income dropped just 0.3 percent (from $31,000 to $30,900 in constant 1997 dollars). Over the same period, municipal expenditure from all sources and on all functions increased by 4.3 percent (again after adjusting for inflation). If Baltimore residents are not four percent poorer, it is not clear why they need four percent more spent on them.

Candidates, what d’ya say? – Ed.

Posted in: News Series, Urban Affairs