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
"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
the chief administrative officer. He describes his office as
functioning as "a collaborative process."
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.
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
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.
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.
is a flip side to all that.
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.
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
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
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.
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,"
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.'."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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