December 17, 2002

He is only midway in his first term as mayor of Wilmington, but Jim Baker already has decided on the legacy he wants to leave behind when his time in office is up: a city returned to the preeminence it once enjoyed.

"We still have a role to play and we need to be strong and healthy so we can play that role," he said. "I don't want to leave anybody a city that's broke."

In practical terms, Baker's goal is to provide viable and permanent revenue streams which will enable the Wilmington to stand on its own and provide the public services expected of it without having to bounce from crisis to crisis or run hat-in-hand to Dover to bail it out. Although Wilmington, and scores of other older cities, have long talked about restoring self-sufficiency, Baker and the people around him have launched a concerted effort to see to it that, if it is at all possible, it will happen.

With little public notice and less fanfare, the city has hired Public Financial Management, a consulting firm nationally recognized as the leader in strategic financial planning for state and municipal governments, to come up with a blueprint. Its report and recommendations are due to be published soon.

Although he insists that the firm's in-depth study is being conducted totally independent of his own views and those of others in his administration, Baker has launched a campaign among the movers and shakers in the business community to garner support for implementing strategies which emerge from the study. He unveiled his approach in a recent speech before the influential Wilmington Rotary Club.

The mayor also has begun initial bi-partisan maneuvering with key members of the General Assembly and the state administration. One of his first recruits in the political arena is Harry Haskell, who 30 years ago was the last Republican mayor of Wilmington.

 Anything but a novice at the game of politics, Baker realizes that he faces an uphill battle. But he said he feels there is little time to waste. "Unless it gets done now, it will never get done," he said.

While in his Rotary talk he specifically highlighted the consulting firm's role in the fiscal turnaround Pennsylvania governor-elect Ed Rendell pulled off while mayor of Philadelphia, Baker emphatically denied in an interview with Delaforum that his present efforts have a direct connection with his own political agenda.

"I'm not trying to promote myself. This doesn't have anything to do with wanting to be governor or anything like that," he said. It is a widely held view among knowledgeable political observers that Baker has brought to his office a genuine love for his adopted city, having spent most of his adult life in professional and political public-service positions on its behalf.

Be that as it may, he is not approaching fiscal renovation with a blank slate, awaiting direction from the consulting firm's report. "Sure I have ideas -- lots of ideas. If I told you all my ideas, we could be here all day," he said.

Seeking the ability to annex land to increase the city's real estate tax base is one that he offers. "People don't realize how small Wilmington really is," he said, noting that it also is restricted by state law, which requires not only owners of the affected properties but also New Castle County government -- which is understandably loathe to surrender turf -- to sign off on any physical growth.

"We're treated differently [in that regard] from any other municipality in the state. Middletown can grow, Newark can grow, but we can't grow," Baker said. Except for a slight boundary adjustment involving access to Christina riverfront development, Wilmington has had no successful annexation within any current resident's memory, although the city itself owns property outside its limits.

Another measure which the mayor advocates would require owners of the 42% of property in the city not on its tax roles to pay an annual fee in lieu of taxes. "If any nonprofit [organization] has an emergency, we send police and fire[fighters] right away. I don't think it's asking too much tfor them to help pay for the services they expect and receive," he said.

He also believes that enabling the city to offer, either directly or through a concessionaire, sports betting would be an acceptable revenue generator. It would be operated along the lines of off-track horse- and dog-race wagering, but Baker said he would exclude those sports from the mix. He said he also would not seek slot machine gambling. "It wouldn't compete with the three racetacks [in the state] in any way," he said.

The mayor rejected any argument that introducing a new form of legal gambling would tend to become a so-called 'tax on the poor'. "People gamble because they like to gamble. Nobody makes them do it; it's something they want to do," he said.

Those or other ways to produce revenue would not be meant to replace the existing property and wage taxes, Baker said, but would serve as a necessary supplement to the traditional streams, which have lost their elasticity. "We're just about at the point where we can raise taxes any more. We're already taxing people to death," he said.

His appeal for legislative assistance, he added, "is not a gimme." Wilmington, he explained, can made a strong case for it on the basis of its contribution to the state economy and its government's income. "Millions of dollars come out of the city. We're entitled to some of it back if we're going to continue to provide the services that keep the businesses that provide those dollars here," he said.

The need, he explained, is pressing.

"They talk about how New York reduced its crime. [Mayor Michael] Bloomberg added 8,000 police officers to do that. We can't add any officers; we can't offer them a raise or even the salary they should have. New Castle (the city) starts its police on a higher salary than we do," Baker said.

"If I had my druthers, I'd add 100 more to the police force, at least 20 to the fire department, and 20 to licenses and inspections. We need those people, but we can't bring them on."

Baker described Wilmington as "the Switzerland of Delaware."

Just as the Alpine country serves the business, banking and commercial interests of Europe in an unique way, Wilmington is the key to Delaware's reputation for providing a business-friendly environment. "If we lose our major city, we're going to loose that," he said.

© 2002. All rights reserved.

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