July 28, 2004

Legislation has been introduced into County Council to provide $15 million in financial assistance to Wilmington, but there is general agreement that would be a stop-gap measure and 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.

Councilman Robert Woods introduced an ordinance that would give the $15 million to city government over a period of three years in the form of grants. While doing so on July 27 he said he will bring the measure to a vote at Council's 'recess session' on Aug. 24. With three co-sponsors, its passage is all but assured.

Of the grant, $5 million would be given in the current fiscal year to enable the city to purchase additional police cars so there will be enough that officers can take them home as their colleagues on the county, state and many other forces do. Another $5 million would go "for the sole purpose of law enforcement." Additional law-enforcement grants of $3 million and $2 million would be given in fiscal 2006 and 2007, respectively.

To guard against future Councils not following through on the future grants, a provision in Woods's ordinance would require a five-sevenths vote to change the appropriation. Council will expand from its present seven members to 13 at the general election in November. That apparently will make the requirement 10 members.

The proposal, which grew out of a meeting of top city and county officials, was discussed in advance and at length at an extended meeting of Council's public safety committee, which Woods chairs, on July 26. Every Council member sits on every committee.

At that session, state representative Dennis Williams, who represents a city constituency in Dover, declared 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 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 preamble to the proposed ordinance confirms that the deal was cut at a meeting on July 14 behind closed doors to discuss the 'sick-out' by city police officers which was then in progress.. It lists County Executive Tom Gordon, Mayor James Baker, Freebery, Coons, president of Wilmington City Council Ted Blunt, and Woods as attenders at that meeting.

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.

Woods proposed the $15 million grant in a memo endorsed by three other members of County Council -- Patty Powell, William Tansey and Karen Venezky -- who have signed on as co-sponsors of the ordinance Woods introduced. Baker reportedly has 'accepted' the offer. Morris told the public safety 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.

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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