June 16, 2005

Whenever he receives a compliment about a county employee or a thank-you from a resident for a job one has performed, County Executive Chris Coons passes it on promptly with his personal endorsement added. That not only partly reflects his preference for a one-on-one management style, but also comes as a response to one of the more pleasant surprises he has received since taking office.

Past experience as president of County Council led him to expect competency and a commitment on the part of rank-and-file workers to render service as called for, but Coons said he was not totally prepared for the ease with which the workforce made a virtually seamless transition from the previous administration to his.

"One of the pleasant surprises has been the extent to which county employees really were willing to be my partner," he said. He cited the enthusiasm with which many respond to requests for their

opinions and suggestions. "They are dumbfounded. At first they didn't believe I was serious. No one had ever asked them before," he said.

He said he has made only 16 appointments to a force of 1,650 and has felt it necessary to actually fire only a half dozen.

Most observers would agree that borders on being unprecedented in even the most orderly of government transitions without a difference in political-party affiliation. In Coons's case, he succeeded Thomas Gordon who, while also a Democrat, was frequently at odds with Council president Coons. And he did so after a bitter primary election campaign against Sherry Freebery who, as chief administrative officer, was the second-ranking official in the Gordon administration and his heir-designate.

Coons has put together a top-management team which shares a variety of responsibilities that formerly were concentrated in the


Christopher Coons


hands of the chief administrative officer. He describes his office as functioning as "a collaborative process."

As he approached the end of his first six months in office -- the one-eighth pole in his term -- Coons shared with Delaforum some of the plusses and minuses of that period. He smilingly stuck by an off-handed comment made recently at a meeting of civic association leaders to the effect that, overall,  it has been fun. "There have been challenging moments and there have been rewarding moments," he said.

Besides the acceptance and rapport received from an overwhelming majority of people involved in the day-to-day running of the county, Coons is pleased with what he agrees has been a 'super honeymoon' with the legislative branch.

Except for a minor change to bring the street-light tax and school crossing guard tax into line with what the law requires, County Council approved his $214.5 million fiscal 2006 budget requests to the penny and did so without any member voicing substantive dissent. Included in the package is a major increase in sewer fees.

Likewise, Council approved -- again, without any objections -- the restructuring of the executive's top echelon staff and what turned out to be a modest downpayment on a set of initiatives he proposed while running for office.

Next to come is the expected enactment, as soon as Council's Jun. 28 session, of a residential rental code. Its practical application will be to further the upgrading of some sub-standard properties, a cause which Coons personally favors. But passage of the pending ordinance also will be symbolic. After he devoted nearly two years to craft a compromise among competing social and economic interests, Coons's efforts were thwarted by the Gordon administration which publicly derided the measure and mustered enough votes among Council members to defeat it. The proposal which Council is expected to approve this time around is identical, except for elimination of one minor glitch, with the one which was previously rejected.

Council has been doubled in size by state legislation -- over objections from Coons and the carryover members -- but relations have been harmonious, both among members and with the administration. Seven of the present 13 members, including Paul Clark, Coons's successor as president, are newly elected and one, Joseph Reda, is a post-election Gordon appointee.

There is a flip side to all that.

For Coons, the biggest disappointment was his inability to sweep into office and immediately implement his promised agenda. "A year ago, I thought I would come in here and have the money and be able to hire the people to get it done," he said.

Instead, he found the extensive 'surplus' Gordon and his administration touted was largely illusion, he said. Much of the money was earmarked for specific purposes and the portion accumulated as a reserve to stave off a property tax increase for as long as possible turned out to be illegally stashed away. In response to a Court of Chancery ruling in a taxpayer suit, Council retroactively established  comparable funds to the apparent satisfaction of the court.

But, for Coons, that meant instead of being able to channel available money into his desired projects he had to come up with a tight budget not only for the coming fiscal year but for the next three years. And his planned initiatives, although put into place, are considerably scaled back. The new redevelopment office, for instance, is limited to $400,000 in start-up money, compared to the $4 million Coons had hoped to put into launching that effort. Most of the initiative money has come from transferring from other budget accounts rather than providing new money.

He claimed that having been able to come up with a spending plan which reflects the smallest annual county budget growth in a decade -- between just over 1% to just over 3%, depending on which comparison you use -- as an accomplishment.  But it was an accomplishment he would have preferred not to have had to make.

In the interview with Delaforum, Coons was unspecific about why he chose not to tap deeper into the reserves to balance the fiscal 2006 budget and accept the need for a tax increase sooner than 2008, which also happens to be the year in which he presumably will stand for re-election.

He did explain that, to an extent, it was the result of not being able at this point to get across to the general public that the county's finances are not as green as they were made out to be. "There is a big gap between what the public thinks and reality," Coons said.

That can be explained by the difficulty the average person has in coping with macro-economics and a prevalent lack of understanding of what county government does among residents. "They're aware they have police protection, parks and libraries, but they don't necessarily connect that with county government," Coons said. "You don't hear somebody say, 'There go the paramedics; I'm glad I pay my county tax dollars.'."

In an effort to repair the long-standing disconnect, Coons has been holding, in conjunction with Clark and the district Council member, a series of 'listening sessions'. They are intended to get a feel for what people want in the way of county services and what they are willing to pay for. "We're trying to find out if they think they're getting good value for the $360 they're paying," he said. That amount is the average property tax bill at present rates.

To a large extent, the sessions have attracted mostly persons who are active in civic affairs. A broader effort is needed, Coons agreed, if he is to have public support when what he describes as "the inevitable tax increase" comes. To that end, he said, there is now under study the possibility of commissioning a professional statistically-valid survey to measure public opinion and expectations.

Coons said another challenge is coping with what he described as "the internal disarray" that he and his administration have found in county government. "The more we clean up, the more we're finding," he said.

For one thing, he said, he has been unable to pin down a specific figure regarding the number of vehicles the county has. "There is not one person who knows how many there are or where they are," he said. To reduce what is considered to be an excessive number, he has mandated that, among other things, employees who infrequently have use for an official car no longer have one assigned to them but rely instead on a central pool.

Currently under study is the county's long-range capital spending plan. "That hasn't been revisited since 1996" and many projects which have been approved by successive Councils have little or no chance of ever being undertaken, he said.

Many stormwater drainage ponds throughout the county are in bad shape -- considered to be in failure or in need of repair. "It could cost $10 million just to fix them. We're trying to find out what our options are," he said.

Even more serious -- Coons called it 'frightening' -- is that the county's plan for responding to and dealing with emergencies such as natural disasters or terrorist acts "has sat [uncompleted] for nearly two years." A public safety taskforce is now working to do that.

Looking ahead, Coons said he is not yet ready to comment specifically on two major projects likely to be thrown county government. One would be possible management of a mandatory recycling program and the other the establishment of a surface water utility to deal with all aspects of drainage and flood control.

2005. All rights reserved.

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