July 27, 2004

Every member of County Council apparently is ready to provide some financial assistance to Wilmington, but there is general agreement that only the state legislature can address city government's financial woes in a sustained and meaningful way. And no politically savvy person is ready at this point to bet that it will.

"The county should move forward with short-term assistance for the city, but has to involve the state in [financing] long-term solutions to the city's revenue problems," Council president Christopher Coons said.

State representative Dennis Williams, who represents a city constituency in Dover, put it more succinctly: "Wilmington is in deep trouble. Stop playing games here. ... Wilmington needs money, not a lot of bullshit."

Revealing that the county administration anticipates there will be a need to increase the real estate tax rate in about four years, Sherry Freebery, its chief administrative officer, said New Castle County "is not the best government to offer [the city] long-term revenue sharing."

Penrose Hollins, whose County Council district includes the city, said that financial aid "will have to proceed on two tracks" with the county dealing with it short-range and the General Assembly assuming long-range responsibility.

After Councilman Robert Woods said that Governor Ruth Ann Minner this autumn will reconvene the taskforce charged in 2003 with recommending ways for the state to enhance Wilmington's continuing revenue streams, Ronald Morris, the county's chief financial officer, said his experience participating in the panel's first go-round leads him to question whether that can be productive. "Never did I see so many people gathered together not to do what they were gathered together to do," he said. The governor agreed to and the Assembly enacted measures considerably short of what the taskforce recommended.

The discussion came as Woods extended a scheduled meeting of County Council's public safety committee on July 26 to consider whether and how to implement an agreement reportedly reached by city and county officials meeting behind closed doors in the wake of a 'sick-out' by members of the Wilmington police force. It calls for the county to provide a $15 million 'grant' that would include $5 million to purchase police cars and $10 million to assist with "general law-enforcement needs. Of the latter, $5 million would be given in the current fiscal year, $3 million in fiscal 2006 and $2 million in fiscal 2007.

The police job action was in protest of not having an employment contract nor pay raise for three years. There has been a general assumption, based on the timing, that the county money would go to pay for police pay raises. However, Woods, Hollins and Freebery raised objections to the county in any way involving itself in labor negotiations between city government and its police union.

As the committee session ended, Woods announced that he has no immediate plans to introduce the necessary legislation to effect the grant. County Council is scheduled to take its traditional August recess after its July 27 meeting. This year, however, it has decided to cut the recess short and meet again on Aug. 24. Although the prospective grant is not on the agenda, a resolution authorizing it could be introduced during the 'other business' portion of the July 27 meeting.

Even if Council takes no action before September, Coons said that he interpreted the tenor of discussion at the finance committee session as giving Mayor James Baker and city government "a level of confidence" that help is on the way.

Woods reportedly had proposed the $15 million grant in a memo endorsed by three other members of County Council -- Patty Powell, William Tansey and Karen Venezky. Although no official follow-up action has been taken, Baker reportedly has 'accepted' the offer. Morris told the committee that the money would have to come from Council's tapping the county's financial surplus or shifting some appropriations in the approved fiscal 2005 budget.

Four members constitute the majority of County Council that would be required to enact legislation necessary to implement the decision. County Executive Tom Gordon, whose approval also would be required, reportedly was a party to the agreement.

In an open letter to Woods read at the committee meeting by John Rago, the mayor's press secretary, Baker referred to the financing agreement as a "direct outgrowth of the positive working relationship we all have nurtured" during more than three years of intergovernmental cooperation between the city and county, which he described as "inextricably tied."

The $15 million will "allow the city to address a number of pressing short-term needs ... [and] to reduce some of the pressure in other areas of our city budget." It also will provide "badly needed breathing room" while a bid for 'structural changes' in the city's ability to raise revenue is considered by the gubernatorial taskforce, according to the letter.

Baker went on to say that "more detailed plans" for use of the grant money will be presented to City Council, which must approve acceptance of the grant. Councilman Norman Griffith, who chairs City Council's finance committee, told his county colleagues that "some issues are still up in the air as to what the proposal is." He did not specify what they are.

Coons earlier in the public safety committee session said that, contrary to some media reports, he had not intended to compete with Woods in devising a way to fulfill the assistance pledge made at the private meeting. "We have had a significant misunderstanding" as the result of his being kept unaware of Woods's memo before Gordon had forwarded it to Baker, Coons said.

He added that he thought the agreement would be made public at the committee meeting and that all Council members would "have the opportunity to discuss openly any plans to help the city of Wilmington." Because of the size of the commitment involved, County Council should "deliberate publicly as a group," he said.

County auditor Robert Hicks reportedly has asked the state attorney general about the legality of Woods's memo vis--vis the state's open meeting law. The memo actually was signed on behalf of the four Council members by their legislative aides.

Nevertheless, Coons did present his plan to the public safety committee. It provides that:

The county immediately provide $5 million in the form of a one-time grant, with no strings attached, so that city government can "complete current negotiations with their public safety unions, both the city police and firefighters."

The county provide additional financial relief by taking on some governmental functions that are duplicated by the city and county, such as paying school-crossing guards.

A nonprofit foundation be established to deal with "public safety issues across county and municipal lines," including raising money from private as well as governmental sources "for critically needed investments in public safety."

The county come up with some form of revenue sharing with the city while "challenging the state to match" the result through such things as possibly making payments in lieu of taxes on state property that is exempt from city taxation.

Councilman William Tansey said he thinks Coons's proposal "looks like we're going to metropolitan government." Freebery said she is concerned that the proposed foundation amounts to a step toward "privatization of the police function." Coons, who lives in the city, denied both assertions. "It is not my intention to suggest these governments merge in any way," he said.

Freebery cautioned against relying too heavily on county government's ability to come up with money to finance continuing support for the city. "We have the money now [but] in four years we are [going to be] just breaking even ourselves," she said. "Eight months from now our [union] contracts are up for negotiations."

With a large delegation of off-duty and out-of-uniform Wilmington police officers attending the committee meeting, Freebery, who is a former county police officer and chief of that force, gave a strong endorsement to the city force and what she said is a pressing need to "properly train, equip and compensation them." City cops currently lag about $20,000 a year behind their counterparts on the county and state force, she said.

Failure to do so, she added, bodes ill for the city. "Folks aren't going to stay in the city if they don't feel absolutely safe," she said.

County police chief David McAllister said it was possible to dispatch county officers into the city during the 'sick out' without "hurting our patrols" in the unincorporated areas of the county, "but we can't do that on any sustained basis." He disputed reported objections by the county police union to providing money to the city on the grounds of alleged shortcomings in financing the county force, which he said was based on falsehoods.

"We're putting ourselves in a dangerous position if [county] money is earmarked for police salaries," city resident Maryann McGonegal testified. She said city police are responsive to calls for assistance, but noted that many officers "do not want to live in the city." There have been several efforts to relax city residency requirements which now apply to all but the longest-serving members of the force.

Morris called for any moves toward revenue sharing to be comprehensive. Questioning whether county government "will have the ability to earmark appropriations for the city down the road," he said not only state government but also "our major corporate partners in the city [should] sit at the table too."

He denied that the arrangement by which residents of incorporated areas pay less county tax because they do not require some county services is an avenue for providing long-term county support for the city. Actually, he said, those residents "receive far more [county] services than they pay for" through their discounted tax obligation.

That, he added, raises the question of the extent to residents of unincorporated areas of the county will be willing to 'subsidize' city residents. Morris also lives in the city.

2004. All rights reserved.

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