August 25, 2004

Providing a $15 million New Castle County grant to help the city of Wilmington finance policing was presented as the first step in a renewed effort toward setting up a long-term revenue-sharing arrangement involving city, county and state governments.

Before County Council appropriated money for the grant by a six-to-one vote on Aug. 24, Council president Christopher Coons tacked on an amendment to the enacting legislation which calls for working-level city and county officials to meet and produce a report on ways to eliminate 'overlaps and inefficiencies' in the delivery of public services in the two jurisdictions before the city receives the second of three installments of part of the grant. The amendment squeaked by on a four-to-three vote, with Council members Patty Powell, Karen Venezky and Robert Woods opposing it.

Coons then withdrew a proposed second amendment that would begin the process of establishing a public safety foundation as a vehicle for raising money from private sources such as corporations and foundations and securing other government grants. Coons said he "will return to [that] idea later."

In a separate but related matter, Coons came out on the short end of a four-to-three vote when he offered a resolution committing county government to resuming responsibility for school crossing guards in the city in an arrangement that, initially at least, would parallel the way crossing guards are provided in the rest of the county. Councilman William Tansey joined Powell, Venezky and Woods in voting against that proposal. Coons indicated, however, that that idea is still viable.

Discussion at the unusual, if not unprecedented, Council session and an earlier meeting of its finance committee was almost entirely conciliatory. William Montgomery, Wilmington Mayor James Baker's chief of staff, described the grant as the culmination of a pattern of city-county cooperation emanating from monthly meetings of their respective officials. City Council president Ted Blunt referred to "a very pleasant relationship over the past four years" forged by the two governments.

County Council normally takes a vacation recess during the entire month of August. Rationale for scheduling an August session this year was the need to act on an increased number of purchase orders and contracts as the result of temporary legislation giving Council greater oversight of the county administration's fiscal and personnel actions in light of charges of alleged corruption now before federal court. As it turned out, the grant authorization was the dominant issue at the session.

The dissenting vote on the authorization legislation was cast by Councilman Robert Weiner. Although he did not participate in the discussion leading up to the vote, he said in a written statement given to media representatives afterwards that he did so because he regards the grant as part of an political effort by Sherry Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer, to secure votes in her bid to win the Democratic nomination to run for election to succeed Tom Gordon as county executive.

"Sherry Freebery has been promising county taxpayers' dollars all around the county. ... She is putting her political interests first and county taxpayers second," Weiner's statement said. Freebery did not attend the Council session.

As previously reported, the idea of the grant grew out of a meeting involving Baker, Gordon and Freebery which occurred during a 'sick-out' in July by Wilmington police officers seeking a new labor contract to give them their first pay raise in three years. First public disclosure of the agreement to provide the grant came after Powell, Tansey, Venezky and Woods signed a memo pledging their support of the necessary legislation.

Woods, as primary sponsor of the enabling legislation which Council enacted, presented a somewhat less restrictive version than originally introduced. As enacted, it provides for giving city government $5 million to set up "a dedicated city fund for police vehicle needs." The original version would have earmarked the money for the purchase of additional patrol cars which city police officers could keep at their homes, as is the practice with the county and state police forces.

The rest of the grant would be given in three annual increments -- of $5 million, $3 million and $2 million -- "for the sole purpose of law enforcement."

There is a provision in the ordinance that would require a five-seventh majority vote in coming years to change or eliminate the grant. Councilman Penrose Hollins point out that that is not a fail-safe guarantee, but there was a consensus that it is as far as a Council can go toward binding a successor Council. Future appropriations will not be necessary; the only action a successor Council could take would be to rescind the one that has now been made. County Council will expand from it present seven members of 13 after the November election.

Montgomery told the Council session that "it is no secret where some of the money will go." He did not say where, but later confirmed to Delaforum that it likely will be used to finance police raises, which he indicated could be partly retroactive to make up for the officers having gone so long without one. The city administration and the Fraternal Order of Police are still negotiating a contract.

The money "will buy the city some breathing room," Montgomery testified at the Council session. But he later told Delaforum that there is "serious worry about sustainability"; that is, the ability to continue to pay at the higher rate after the grant money runs out.

Scott Chaffin, a city police detective and a director of the police union lodge representing city officers, told Council that higher pay is necessary to staunch the outflow of officers. "We're a training facility for other police forces. The major reason is better pay," he said. "We're losing the best and the brightest young officers -- an average of one a month."

Officer Marge Ellwein, who is president of the lodge which represents members of the county police force, said that department has manpower problems as well. The amount of money spent on the grants could be used to put additional officers on county patrols. Woods, who chairs Council's public safety committee, said there is "a difference of opinion on what staffing we need," but added that the committee intends to delve into the matter.

Herman Holloway Jr., a former state legislator, said the grant was necessary "to help build a confidence of safety for our city residents [and] county residents and those up and down the state who visit the city every day."

Dave Carter, who lives in Townsend cited "a fear of coming into the city" on the part of many suburbanites and residents of rural areas. Changing their perception through stronger policing should be a priority objective, he said. "For this one, raise my taxes."

There continues to be a general agreement among both county and city officials and other observers that any long-term solution to the city government's financial woes lies in the hands of state government.

Coons said his idea in requiring a county-city effort to identify service areas where support and cost-savings measures can be applied and having the county take over the school crossing guard function were to set an example and "challenge" state government to get involved. He said he has written "in my capacity as a private citizen" to Governor Ruth Ann Minner asking her to reconstitute the taskforce she convened in 2003 to study possible ways for the state to channel financial assistance to Wilmington.

Venezky noted that Delaware and Mississippi are the only states that do not have some form of state revenue sharing with cities and municipalities.

Coons said the amendment requiring county and city officials to meet was not intended to attach a string to the grant but to keep the momentum of cooperation going. "I want to see that everything people today want to see happen actually does happen," he said. Woods argued, however, that "it sends a wrong message" to the effect that the county and not the state will be the primary sources of financial aid. Coons replied that joint efforts regarding some public services is what he has in mind, adding that the amendment was "not intended to open up a discussion about revenue sharing."

His crossing guard proposal met rather strong opposition, primarily on practical considerations. His raising the subject, however, may have spurred an effort to 'reform' a well-established arrangement with apparent inexplicable flaws.

In unincorporated areas, county police have responsibility for overseeing the guards' operations but school districts determine how many are needed and at what intersections and other locations they will be posted. The guards are paid for by a separate county-collected tax pegged to the resultant cost. In Wilmington, but not other incorporated municipalities, school districts have similar authority, but the cost is paid from general tax revenue.

Guards in unincorporated areas are paid considerably more -- on a scale which ranges from 14% to 37% higher, according to county police Major Stuart Snyder -- but the compensation is still relatively low and annual turnover is as high as 20% to 25%. County practice, Snyder testified, is to assign regular police officers when possible to cover absences. There evidently is no such coverage in the city.

"Are county police officers going into the city to fill this functions? If an intersection is not staffed and a child is struck are police at fault?" Snyder said. At present, he said, guards' only means of calling for help is by using personal cellular telephones.

Venezky questioned what she termed 'inequity' in how the county would finance city guards if it takes them over. The cost would be shifted from city taxpayers to all county taxpayers, including those who live in the city. But residents outside of the city would have to continue to pay the separate tax, she said.

Ron Morris, the county's chief financial officer, put that into a broader context in urging that the county lawmakers scrutinize the financial effects of assuming the crossing guards function or taking over any other city service. "Before we commit to any long-term support or revenue sharing, we should look at our own fiscal situation," he said.

The $15 million policing grants are to be financed, according to the appropriations legislation, from the county's operating surplus. Morris and others have said, however, that the surplus built during several years without any county tax increase, will run out in a few more years.


2004. All rights reserved.

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