March 16, 2004

Metropolitan government for Wilmington and vicinity was roused from a 20-year slumber, bandied about for a couple of hours and put back to sleep. Whether another generation will go by before the idea comes back is anyone's guess, but there is no doubt it won't be going anywhere in the immediate future.

Leaders of both branches of city and county government came out firmly opposed to any combination of the two at the first and only meeting of a legislative committee established by the General Assembly last year to study possibilities in that regard.

Instead, it was agreed that Representative Robert Valihura, the chairman, would ask Governor Ruth Ann Minner to reconvene the taskforce charged with studying possible solutions to the city's financial problems. In June, 2003, the taskforce submitted several short-term proposals, only some of which were approved by the Assembly, and recommended that it continue to seek longer-range ways to enhance city revenue.

"The core issue is money," said Ted Blunt, president of City Council. "If the General Assembly really wants to do something to help the city of Wilmington, it will [enable] us to participate in gambling revenue."

William Montgomery, Mayor's James Baker's chief of staff, agreed, expressing it somewhat differently: "We were happy with what we got from the governor's taskforce, but what we need is a broader stream of revenue."

Blunt noted that City Council enacted a resolution not only opposing the idea of metropolitan government but also objecting to the matter even being seriously considered.

Responding to suggestions that combining city and county governments would result in greater efficiency and lower costs, County Councilman Penrose Hollins called that "a diversion." If lawmakers in Dover "were so interested in less government, why did they double [the size of] County Council?" he asked rhetorically.

County Executive Tom Gordon said metropolitan government would be impractical because it would involve merging with just the city and not the other incorporated municipalities in the county. Broadening it to include the others would be politically impossible. "Newark would never go for that," he said.

"All you're going to do is pit one government against another" by bringing the issue forward for serious consideration, he said. That, he added, would destroy the spirit of cooperation which exists between the county and Wilmington governments. "It would just be an insult to the city leadership," he said.

Montgomery agreed. "There is a whole lot of communication going on between our governments," he said. Both city-county and city-state relations under the present administrations in all three jurisdictions are good. Upsetting that balance would, among other things, hamper city efforts, which appear to be working, to "get middle-class people to live as well as work in the city," he said.

"Nobody wants to go into the city because of their wage tax," Gordon commented, adding that the state "extracts 15 different kinds of taxes" from activities in Wilmington while essentially requiring city government to live on its wage and property taxes. Metropolitan government, he said, would only shift all of that burden to county property owners.

Valihura said that a major stumbling block to the city's improving its tax base is the uneven treatment of Wilmington when it comes to annexation. The city is the only jurisdiction in Delaware whose geographic growth is stymied by the county and state having veto power over such moves.

Hollins noted that a currently pending proposal to expand the city to include the Miller Road Shopping Center so it can help finance location there of a supermarket and associated redevelopment has so far been held up. "Trying to annex 10 acres of land is a big issue, but Smyrna can go out and take 500 acres," he said.

Melissa Gray, legislative aide to County Council president Christopher Coons, made the rejection of metropolitan government unanimous. On his behalf, she said metropolitan government would "prohibit the city from directing its own course."

While Valihura agreed with Gordon that further consideration would be "just a waste of time and effort," there was some dissent from the committee consensus. Daniel Bockover, president of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, spoke of the area being "overgoverned." And City Councilman Paul Bartkowski, the only member who voted against the resolution to which Blunt referred, said, "I don't see what possible harm could come from taking a look at how we operate."

Civic activist Frances West recalled that she served on a committee set up by then governor Pierre du Pont in the early 1980s to look into the issue. It studied the matter and produced a report that was promptly ignored and soon forgotten. As it happened, she may possess the only surviving copy of that report. Valihura said it could not be found in the state archives.

2004. All rights reserved.

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