March 24, 2004

Just about everyone involved in or associated with county government was there and the mood was several octaves higher than upbeat as County Executive Tom Gordon hosted what amounted to a victory rally celebrating accomplishments of his administration's seven-plus years in office.

In an hour-long valedictory speech, he recounted a dramatic turnaround from an inherited $100 million budget deficit to a $242 million surplus while completely restructuring county government, expanding public services ranging from libraries to police protection, providing folksy activities like overnight campouts and swapping politics for professional management.

And, he repeatedly emphasized, it was all done without increasing the property tax or sewer fees.

"We have worked tirelessly to bring opportunities for happiness here to the 'End of the Rainbow' -- New Castle County," he said.

Officially, the occasion was the executive's annual report to County Council on the condition of county government and presentation of his proposed operating and capital budgets.

Highlight of that part of the proceedings was a proposal for the county to provide $10 million toward development of the long-planned Peterson Wildlife Refuge at the southern end of the Christina Riverfront in Wilmington. Named for former Delaware Governor Russell Peterson, who was in the audience, the 225-acre site is to have walking trails and an educational center.

Gordon referred to the venture as being undertaken in partnership with state, but did not spell out details of that arrangement. County Council responded with the introduction, during its business session following the speech, of an ordinance sponsored by Councilman William Tansey authorizing an $11 million bond issue to finance the project. The other $1 million would go toward development of Iron Hill Park and Museum near Newark.

In his talk Gordon also proposed putting up $1 million toward development of a 'greenway' system of connected walking and bicycling paths throughout the county.

The proposed operating budget calls for spending $205.9 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1. That would be a 5.5% increase over the $195.2 million authorized this year.

The largest percentage increase, 37.3%, would go to cover the cost of expanding County Council from seven to 13 members. At its business session, Council approved adding $1.5 million to this year's capital budget and authorization to finance remodeling of its office area in the Redding Building to accommodate the new members and their aides.

The vote on that was unanimous, although Tansey, who sponsored the measure, called the state law requiring expansion "an 'unfunded' mandate by the governor that is completely politically motivated." Governor Ruth Ann Minner vetoed legislation that would have annulled the expansion and observers regard it as highly unlikely that the General Assembly will override her veto.

Gordon's budget calls for adding 10 officers to bring the county police force to an authorized strength of 356 and four paramedics to increase that force to 99. He also proposed providing $500,000 to the Wilmington Fire Department to finance life-support services, reducing the city's reliance on the county's volunteer fire companies.

Not only will the additional spending not require a tax increase, but Gordon announced the channeling of the budget surplus into several reserve accounts to, among other purposes, "protect the [present] property tax rate" and "user-rate stabilization" of the sewer fund.

The executive urged that the surplus be carefully watched. "I worked hard to secure this surplus and it belongs to every taxpayer in the county. It is yours to be invested in your best interest and happiness, not some future politician's treasure chest or trust fund to buy political support and popularity," he said.

Gordon devoted the core of his speech to lauding, by name, the general managers of the county's operating departments and their staffs. "There was no way to accomplish what we did without these general managers," he said.

Key to that, he added, was putting top department management into the hands of professionals promoted from the ranks of county employees through a civil service-style merit system. "Each current general manager was an expert internally in departmental operations, but never allowed to manage because of politically appointed directors. The political nature of the job required their focus to be the re-election of the administration, not on making hard, often unpopular decisions inside departments," he said.

Gordon reserved his most effusive praise for Sherry Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer. "Everything I have outlined this evening and in similar speeches of years past, is due to her infectious enthusiasm, her can-do attitude and her brilliant ability to create remarkable reality from simple vision," he said. "She has taken so many undeserved attacks so that I may take credit for all that has been accomplished."

Freebery, who is seeking to succeed Gordon, immediately turned the tables by calling out of an anteroom, where people who could not fit into the overcrowded Council chamber gathered to watch and hear the speech by closed-circuit television had gathered, a congratulatory receiving line of civic leaders, beneficiaries of county services and costumed re-enactors.

2004. All rights reserved.

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