News

May 27, 2003

County Council approved operating and capital budgets for the coming fiscal year and set a property tax rate unchanged from this year, but put off a final decision on whether and how to proceed with proposed construction of a sanitary sewer system in the area south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.

Technically, Council at its regular session on May 27 unanimously approved spending an additional $3 million on the project in fiscal 2004. Councilman William Tansey announced, however, that  was tentative, pending further consideration by the Special Services Committee, which he chairs. The committee, which, like all standing committees, includes all seven members of Council, has a meeting scheduled for the afternoon of June 10. Council next meets in regular session that evening.

Including the appropriation in the capital budget and an ordinance authorizing the sale of general obligation bonds to finance that budget set up an unusual parliamentary situation. Rather than having to approve continuing the multi-year project, Council would have to vote to remove it from the budget.

"If we don't take any action to remove it, [the Department of] Special Services moves ahead," Council president Christopher Coon said at a Finance Committee meeting with preceded the Council session.

The delay was not unexpected. As Delaforum previously reported, a sharply divided Council sought to take advantage of the breathing room provided by the month between adoption of the budgets and the start of the new fiscal year.

Coons said that proceeding that way "sent a signal" that Council is committed to provide publicly financed sewers, albeit it possibly on an extended timetable or by a less comprehensive program. "It is not my expectation that this (including the project in the bond authorization) is a final decision," he said.

Coons previously has indicated that he has reservations about the total cost of the project, which necessarily will be spread over the entire county rather than confined to the area the sewers will serve.

Councilwoman Karen Venezky, who chairs the finance panel, took issue with Coons's statement, saying that there is no  indication at this point how a final decision will go.

Tansey said the June 10 committee meeting is intended as a forum for continued discussion. "I don't think we'll reach a conclusion," he said.

Sherry Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer, said in effect that Council, indeed, has a month's grace to try to resolve what obviously is a sharp difference of opinion among its members. "Nothing can be done [under] the new budget until July 1," she said. "We're not going to rush off to the bond market ... until we know what everybody wants."

Chief financial officer Ron Morris said that, even if the $3 million stands, about $39 million, or more than a third of the cost of the project, will have to be appropriated in future years.

Despite Tansey's announcement that the issue was off limits for the Council session, William Narcowich, retiring president of the Civic League for New Castle County, testified during the public comment portion of the session that the umbrella civic association recently went on record unanimously supporting completion of the sewer system "as originally planned."

Absent any official discussion of the sewer issue, Council breezed through passage of the package of ordinances and resolutions required to set the county's financial course for the year. There was no discussion, let alone debate, among the members before any of their unanimous votes.

Actually, the $3 million allocated in the capital budget  to finance continued design work on the sewer project, was a relatively minimal slice of the $44.5 million authorized for several sewer and sewer-related projects. That, in turn is well over half of the total $78.1 million capital budget.. The largest single item in the budget, $16 million, is slated for parkland acquisition, particularly a large tract to expand the planned regional park at Glasgow. Another $10 million is dedicated to development of that park.

The park project, including its possible expansion if purchase of the additional property can be negotiated was endorsed by officers of civic associations in the area.

Final version of the fiscal 2004 operating budget came in at $195.1 million. That is up from $189.1 million this year,  including changes Council has made since it was initially adopted last spring.

Inclusion of $250,000 to enable the Wilmington Fire Department to expand its ambulance service, relieving the need for suburban volunteer fire companies to respond to some of its calls, drew vocal support.

Council included pay raises for its members' aides, a move which Venezky said will put them on a par with other county employees in comparable positions.

The tax rate for residential and commercial properties in unincorporated areas of the county remains, as it has since County Executive Thomas Gordon took office, 45.5 for each $100 of assessed value. The rate in incorporated areas ranges from 29.7 in Wilmington and Newark to 37.75 in the three Ardens. Those rates are based on how much locally-financed services the municipalities provide.

Property taxes, which are due Sept. 30,  are estimated to produce $68.9 million in the coming fiscal year.

2003. All rights reserved.

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