Should City Decentralize or Seek Regional Solutions?

by George W. Liebmann
       The Chronicle has recently run a series of articles on regionalism. The premise of these articles is that enhanced regional government is a good thing.

       The pursuit of regional government is in fact a mirage. Baltimore City is in a far better position with its present relationship as a favored client of state government than it would be if it were part of a larger region. The city receives $2.43 in state aid for each dollar in state taxes it sends to Annapolis; 43.9% of its budget consists of federal and state transfers, including $713 million in state aid.

       Devotees of metropolitan government like David Rusk concede that outside of water and sewer and solid waste, which are already organized on a metropolitan basis, there are no economies of scale in metropolitan government, which has in recent decades been curtailed or abolished in London, Barcelona, Copenhagen and Rotterdam, among other places.

       Metropolitan structures are sought primarily for the purpose of dispersing low-cost housing. What is sought is government purposefully designed to be unresponsive; hence Rusk's proposals for large metropolitan council districts cutting across subdivision lines, all of which would be heterogeneous and none of which would have a black majority.

       Thirty years of flailing about, including the proposals of the 1967 [state] Constitutional Convention, the Schaefer legislature reapportionment plan, and the HUD Moving-to-Opportunity scheme with its bizarre racial quotas, sufficiently indicate that the public is having none of it. This is a commercial republic in which, in the long run, the dollar is the universal solvent, and in which citizens are conditioned to desire some control over their destinies.

Other Approaches to Problems

       There is however, a more hopeful approach to urban problems. It entails the proliferation of decentralized political units with limited taxing and spending powers in Baltimore City.

       What are the elements of such a scheme?

       Business Improvement Districts, which can be freely organized in 40 states, but not in Maryland. These allow urban merchants and property owners to vote to assess themselves so that they can develop the security forces, advertising budgets, street improvements, parking, local transport and community fairs that have given suburban shopping malls such a devastating competitive advantage.

       Recently the O’Malley administration has proposed to spend a few hundred thousand dollars in aid of local shopping districts. But what is even more needed is city-wide provision of the mechanism for local self-help which the Schmoke administration allowed only to the Downtown and Midtown Partnerships. BID's have been as important in the revival of New York as the Giuliani policing measures.

       Self-governing schools--with the power to manage their own budgets and hire and fire their personnel, which have been fostered on England, Australia and New Zealand by both Conservative and Labor governments. Instead of moving in this direction, the city administration appears ready to acquiesce in withdrawal from Baltimore City College of the limited authority granted it. If there are excellent self-governing public schools, the City will have a story to tell to migratory industry and its middle-class exiles. The place to begin is with the high schools.

       Land readjustment associations, such as those of Japan, Korea and Germany, which allow property owners in a block the ability to organize cooperative redevelopment without waiting for protracted condemnation proceedings.

       Street governments, common in Western Europe and St. Louis and its suburbs, which allow abutting owners the right to acquire streets or petition for traffic calming measures.

       Special taxing districts, to operate bus systems, pedestrian malls and parking facilities, allowed elsewhere in the state but not in Baltimore City.

       Neighborhood community associations with taxing powers, which should be permitted to operate van services on fixed routes or on a demand-response basis to fill the gaps left by the muscle-bound Mass Transportation Administration, which is prevented by federal regulations and union contracts from modernizing its route system, and which, like the Charles Village Community Benefits District, should be permitted to provide additional security and street cleaning. As in Germany and France, trash collection responsibilities should be transferred to such small local entities, who would effectively privatize and modernize it. Such entities can also organize cooperative preschool playgroups and old age clubs, and assume responsibility for recreation centers.

       These mechanisms allow more efficient rendition of services, though privatization and increased use of volunteers. The experience of several hundred thousand community and condominium associations also suggests that the requirement of annual independent audits will provide more honest and scandal-free government than that provided by city agencies.

       Concerns about disadvantage to the poor can be alleviated by appropriating city funds to such agencies and schools using an inverse wealth formula. Government thus organized will restore the appeal of city living and end the continuing flight of the city's black and white middle class.


George Liebmann is the author of the recently published “A Contrast to Regionalism: Reversing Baltimore's Decline through Neighborhood Enterprise and Municipal Discipline,” available free on the Internet at www.calvertinstitute.org or for $5.00 from Calvert Institute, 2604 Sisson Street, Baltimore, MD 21211.


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This story was published on August 30, 2000.