May 25, 2005

County Executive Christopher Coons and County Council president Paul Clark hailed a cooperative spirit which resulted in unanimous approval of the county's $214.5 million operating budget for the coming fiscal year.

"Over the past several months, this Council and I have worked hard to communicate and cooperate to develop a budget that will fulfill the needs and priorities of the people of New Castle County, while simultaneously ensuring that the county's financial picture will remain strong for years to come," Coons said in a press statement issued as he prepared to sign into law the budget ordinance and related legislation immediately following the council session at which they were enacted.

Before the vote on the budget ordinance on May 24, Clark said, "It's been a long time [that] we've been working on it."

The measures which Council approved were, with one relatively minor change, identical to what Coons and his administration proposed in March.

The budget, which also is an appropriations act, provides for spending $68.1 on general operations, $85.7 million for local services, $57.2 million on sewer operations and $3.3 million for street lights.

The total is up 1.79% over $210.5 million programmed to be spent during the present fiscal year, including increases enacted by Council since it initially approved the fiscal 2005 budget last May.

Coons in his statement and the administration in various contexts have compared the new budget, which takes effect July 1, with the current one as originally enacted. That comparison show a 3.35% increase over $207.5 million.

Either way, the spending plan comes off with considerably less growth than has occurred in previous years under the Thomas Gordon administration.  That averaged nearly 6.5% since 2000, according to Coons.

The property tax rate for the coming year remains unchanged at 45.5 for each $100 of assessed property value in unincorporated areas. The rate is scaled down to 15.8 on properties in Newark and Wilmington. The lower rates are proportionate to the extent of county-financed services provided to incorporated municipalities.

As has been previously reported, sewer service rates, however, will increase by 28.1%.

The county will draw down $10.6 million from its property tax stabilization reserve and $68 million from the sewer rate stabilization reserve to partly finance the respective fiscal 2006 budgets. That will leave those accounts at an estimated $59.5 million and $3.5 million, respectively, on June 30, 2006.

The minor changes in the financial package were in the rates of the street light tax, which finances lights in communities where residents petition to have them, and in the rates of the school crossing guard tax, which is paid by all property taxpayers but differs by school district. The net effect for most taxpayers will be a pennies-on-the-hundred reduction in their total tax obligation.

That evidently represents acquiescence to the part of a taxpayers suit which, as Delaforum previously reported, challenges those rates on the grounds that they are clear violations of the law.

The only break in Council's unanimous endorsements was by Jea Street, who objected to the long-range capital spending plan and an ordinance authorizing sale of general obligation bonds to partly finance the capital budget in the coming fiscal year.

Those points may turn out to be moot, however. As Delaforum previously reported, Coons has ordered a complete review of all capital projects.

Chief administrative officer David Singleton told Council's finance committee during a meeting before its semimonthly plenary session that the expected result of the review will be "a plan that will much more reflect the expectations we all have."

When it comes down to deciding which plans go forward and which ones are scrapped "pretty much everything is on the table," Clark said at that meeting.

Singleton said also that there are no present plans for a bonds sale.

Street jointed his colleagues in voting in favor of the operating budget ordinance although he said he still feels the county needs to spent more to increase the number of police officers and to provide services such as summer employment for more children. He initially raised those points during a budget hearing -- the only time during the six weeks of those sessions that a point was made about a specific budget request.

2005. All rights reserved.

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