April 30,  2003

County Executive Tom Gordon said he meant it when he proposed recently that county government consider taking over some of the responsibility for either roads or schools within its jurisdiction.

"If we get serious about it, it's something that could be done," he told Delaforum.

Coming as it did at the end of his annual budget and 'state of the county' message to County Council, the proposal for what would be a dramatic change in a long-standing way of doing things in Delaware was barely recognized as such and has  received virtually no public attention.

But Gordon has at least one prominent person who agrees with him and happens to be in a position where he could exert some influence to bring it about -- or at least start the process moving.

Gordon, in fact, credits state Senator Harris McDowell with originally broaching the idea. McDowell is majority leader in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

"If you look at a few facts, it makes sense," McDowell said.

Neither official is under any illusion that such a change could come easily or quickly. The proverbial uphill struggle would be something on the order of magnitude of scaling Mount Everest.

Nevertheless, both can make a case for moving in that direction if, for no other reason, than what they're suggesting is actually taken for granted in every other state, with the possible exception of Hawaii. Truth to be told, the first and 50th are the ones which deviate from the norm.

Tom Gordon

State agencies and departments  now provide up to 82% or 83% of public services, when measured by cost, McDowell said. Were it not for Delaware's diminutive size, that might be considered by many to be too great a concentration of involvement in people's lives at a level somewhat remote and beyond their direct control.

"Everywhere else, the idea of county roads is accepted," Gordon said. They include streets and byways apart from the highways. One possibility, he added, would be for the state to retain responsibility for numbered routes while leaving the rest to the county. Another would be applying the precedent of the divided jurisdiction of state and county police forces.

Even stronger precedent exists with schools, he noted. Although the state Department of Education provides oversight and the state's operating and capital budgets put up more than three quarters of the cost of operating them, local school districts and their boards of education exercise considerable autonomy.

As with roads, Gordon has no set approach to what role the county might play in regard to schools. There could perhaps again be a single countywide district. Although he does not specifically advocate it, his 'what if' scenarios could be taken to suggest the possibility of County Council functioning, in part, as an elected school board.

In a different context in his conversation with Delaforum, Gordon referred to the likelihood that an enlarged Council -- it is slated to go from seven members to 13 following the 2004 general election -- will find itself looking for things to do now that its workload has been reduced by the Unified Development Code to three times a year.

With almost a third of the county's children and their families opting for private or home schooling, there is ample justification for revising the system, Gordon said. Citing the reorganization of county government under his administration as an example of how to "provide more service at less cost," he said the same model could be applied directly to the delivery of public education.

"If we had four more years, we could take our management team and reorganize the school bureaucracy and make it more efficient just like we did with government" he said.

Gordon doesn't have four more years. His second term expires in less than two and, by law, he is ineligible to run for re-election. He plans when he steps down to seek a management position in the private sector.. His present intention, which he said he does not expect to change, is not to seek further public office, he told Delaforum.

His proposal to expand the function of county government is not a bid to establish a sinecure for himself, he insisted. "If it gets done, someone else will be the one to do it," he said.

While the fact that New Castle County's financial picture is bright and the state's is under a cloud would seem to provide some impetus for redefining jurisdictions, Gordon said it could happen only if the county is permitted to assume new revenue streams along with new responsibilities. "It can't be done on the (county) property tax," he said. "The state has 19 taxes, we just have two."

Individual school districts levy local taxes -- albeit also on real estate -- which county government collects on their behalf. That has been a point of contention with the Gordon administration since he came into office with a promise not to raise county taxes. "Every year people saw their taxes going up and didn't understand that it was the school districts, not the county that was raising them," he said. To counter that to the extent he could, Gordon initiated early on the practice of sending separate bills, or notices in the case of property owners who pay through mortgage escrow accounts, delineating the two levies.

Both Gordon and McDowell said that, if their idea were to be taken up, many details would have to be worked out. Then there is the matter of dealing with personal and political interests. On top of that, tradition counts heavily in Delaware. That comes down to the legacy of the Cousins du Pont in the first quarter or so of the last century. It was Coleman who founded the state's modern highway system and the original P.S. who endowed many of its public schools which had a large bearing on how the state education system came to be.

2003. All rights reserved.

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