March 26, 2003

There are 3,034 counties in the United States and New Castle bids fair to claim the distinction of leading the pack when it comes to fiscal health. That comes at a time when most states and municipalities are foundering in seas of red ink.

Not only is New Castle one of only 21 to have their bonds rated triple-A, the top grade, by all three major Wall Street securities rating firms, but it also happens to have the lowest tax rate and the most money in reserve accounts, County Executive Tom Gordon told a County Council special meeting and the public.

"The fact is self evident -- New Castle County is the best managed and best fiscally situated county in the United States," he said.

In a combined budget message and 'state of the county' address on Mar. 25, Gordon emphasized that a total of $225 million in surpluses in several accounts assures that the pledge he made when he took office in 1997 that there would be no property tax increase during his tenure will be honored. What's

more, he said, the cushion will enable his successor "to avoid tax increases after we (his administration) are gone." Gordon is not eligible for re-election after his second term, which expires at the beginning of 2005.

The surplus total is larger than the $194.6 million spending plan for the fiscal year which begins July 1 which he presented to Council. That will be up 2.9% from $189 million this fiscal year, mostly, he said, as a result of increases in employment costs and inflation.

While Gordon said he

County Executive Tom Gordon delivers his budget message to County Council. In the background is a screen with was used to highlight points in the talk. The cut-put figures are representative of the Victorian age, which is the theme of Rockwood Park.

resisted a temptation to end his watch by spending on major initiatives and continued to hold tight rein on county department, he did suggest the possibility of a sweeping change in the scope of county government relative to the state. New Castle County, he said, could assume responsibility for either public schools or roads "if this [County] Council is up to the challenge." Both are extremely long-standing state functions in Delaware.

Although that idea came as something of a surprise, he noted that the county has been involved recently  in some notable inter-governmental arrangements. It agreed with Governor Ruth Ann Minner to reverse the proportion at which paramedical service is financed. The county will now provide 60% of that expense while the state antes up 40%. Similarly, he said, a recent agreement with Wilmington Mayor James Baker on sewage-treatment costs -- once a bone of serious contention between the city and county -- assures "harmony and fair sewer rates for five more years."

The executive took the occasion of having a standing-room crowd in the City-County Council chamber to pay tribute to the leaders of his administration by name. The  most effusive tribute was extended to Sherry Freebery, chief administrative officer, who is the focus of an investigation by the United States Marshall in connection with alleged improper political activity. Gordon referred to Freebery as "the quarterback of the team.".

Taking a cue from the federal, state and local emphasis on security, the most significant new program that Gordon announced was establishment of a 'Homeland Operations Team' to assess readiness on the part of county police and paramedics, along with the volunteer fire service, to respond to emergecies, whether induced by humans or brought by nature.

"We cannot stick our heads in the sand. We must be ready, for it is inevitable, perhaps even more likely now that war has erupted, that additional acts of terrorism will occur upon our home soils," he said.

The proposed budget allots $100,000 to set up the new section in the executive's office. It initially will be staffed by persons detailed from existing public safety and related organizations, but Gordon left open the possibility of seeking permanent status for it.

The budget also allots $950,000 to buy equipment and set up an emergency notification system for fire-fighters. It is to replace the present paging system which he said "has outlived itself and is no longer dependable."

Gordon also asked for $9.8 million, a 15.4% increase over this year, is operating funds for county libraries. There is also $6,5 million in Gordon's proposed $52.3 million capital budget for expanding the Kirkwood and Hockessin branch libraries and developing a replacement for the Woodlawn branch of the Wilmington Institute library, which will come under county jurisdiction.

The capital budget also contains $24.5 million for county parks, including $10 million for parkland acquisition and $5 million for open-space and farmland preservation.

The largest component of the capital budget is $36 million for sewer work -- principally rehabilitation of the system in the northern part of the county and expansion of the system in the southern part.

2003. All rights reserved.

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