February xx, 2005

There will be a complete review of county finances before he submits his proposed fiscal 2006 budgets to Council, County Executive Christopher Coons said. And, once the budgets are approved, he wants it to be more difficult to change them.

The fact that the present year's spending plan is running a deficit "may not have reached the public's attention," he told attenders at a press conference called to make public the more than 80 recommendations he received from a 75-member transition taskforce before taking office. To a large extent, he indicated that he has adopted the report as an agenda for the beginning of his administration.

Following it, he said, "does the things we said we will do" during the election campaign. "It starts us on a solid foundation."

Making a summary of the taskforce report available signals an intent to follow through on a pledge to run the county in what he termed "an open and transparent way." He said that, as far as he has been able to determine, no previous administration made public the results of transition studies.

Coons, who won both the Democratic nomination and the general election by wide margins after bitter campaigns, claims a public mandate and, following quick passage by the General Assembly of a law giving him full control over the top echelon of officials, said he intends major changes in the way that the county is run.

"Everybody in this government will get past some of the issues that made county government a subject of media interest over the past year," he said at the press conference on Jan. 31.

The new law restores the executive's traditional right to appoint department managers. During the reorganization of county government early in the administration of Coons's predecessor, Thomas Gordon, state law was changed to make those position subject to the civil service merit system. That made it more difficult to terminate incumbents. When Governor Ruth Ann Minner signs the legislation, which Coons said she has assured him she will, they will become political appointees who serve "at the pleasure of the executive."

Patricia DiIenno, chief human resources officer; Ronald Morris, chief financial officer; and James Sapp, chief procurement officer -- all of whom are long-time county employees -- have given notice they intend to leave. Charles Baker heads the Department of Land Use; Diane Baker, the Department of Community Services; and Joseph Freebery, the Department of Special Services. Police chief David McAllister heads the Department of Public Safety -- although Council last year established a managerial position for that department which was not filled -- and Dennis Siebold is serving as county attorney in an acting capacity.

Coons said he has received more than 200 applications from people interested in those top-level jobs. He only smiled when asked how many specific appointees he has in mind and who they are, saying that current office-holders are being interviewed about their desires. He did say that a civilian -- albeit someone with prior police or public safety job experience -- will be drawn from more than 30 applicants for that job to become public safety manager.

He said that he has been pleased during his first month in office to find the county workforce at all levels cooperative and apparently compatible with the new administration.

Tackling county finances, Coons indicated, holds top priority.

As Delaforum previously reported, the county's $142 million general operating fund budget is expected to run about $9 million in the red in this fiscal year, which ends June 30. That deficit is covered by a variety of reserve funds, including one created under Gordon to ward off the necessity to raise property taxes. Gordon recently told Council's finance committee that, under current conditions, it should hold until fiscal 2009.

The transition panel recommended that Coons not follow the practice of the Gordon administration of referring to the reserves as a 'surplus'. There is about $10 million of uncommitted reserves, which is as close as any of the accounts come to being spare cash.

Coons did not talk about taxes as such, but did refer to a commitment to "fiscal discipline." He said he has "nothing specific in mind at this time" in the way of cuts in departmental spending requests but added that the proposals will receive careful scrutiny before he takes his proposed budget to Council in March.

On a more fundamental level, he talked of "developing long-term solutions to the current structural budget deficits" in both the general fund and the separate sewer fund. Nachman Hays Brownstein Inc., a financial consulting firm, has been hired to take a hard look at county coffers and to make recommendations, he said.

Coons said he has no present intention to institute a hiring freeze but that chief administrative officer David Singleton has been reviewing every request to fill a job slot. Coons said "there are genuine and legitimate needs" to fill many of the some 100 vacancies in the county workforce and to increase the number of authorized positions in such areas as police and paramedic services.

Although he said he has yet not come up with a proposal for how to accomplish it, he wants to end the practice of Council's routinely and almost perfunctorily changing the budget once it is enacted and authorizing supplemental appropriations. He referred to the practice of limiting Council to acting on rezoning proposals only thrice a year as a possible model.

Also, he said he is considering setting up a financial review and advisory panel for the county similar to the ones in place in state and Wilmington city governments.

Coons said he would like to see Council fill the office of county auditor as quickly as possible and to hire a second person for that office to act as an assistant to the auditor and financial advisor to Council. In a highly controversial move, Council recently fired auditor Robert Hicks. Except for saying that, were he still Council president, his prior position, he would not have voted to do so, Coons has not expressed an opinion about the issue. He did say at the press conference that he does not think the auditor's office should be moved from the legislative to the executive branch.

He said he will wait until the gubernatorial taskforce studying possible measures to deal with stormwater and flooding mitigation reports before deciding what approach he favors for New Castle County. However, having previously voiced support for establishing am autonomous stormwater utility as a management and financing vehicle, he noted that "there are a number of options for how you structure [it]."

He likewise said he wants to wait before taking a position on proposed legislation put forth by the county Ethics Commission. As Delaforum previously reported, the requested measures would, among other things, give the commission investigatory authority over county employees for up to three years after their employment ends.

Overall, Coons said the administration has begun or is about to begin taking action on 16 of the transition taskforce's recommendations. One, in fact, was handled on an even-as-we-speak basis. During the press conference, Coons signed an executive order requiring everyone on his senior staff to promptly file and make public personal financial statements. Statements from county officials are not due until May and not everyone on the executive's staff is covered by the requirement to file.

2005. All rights reserved.

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Get more information about this topic

Read previous Delaforum article: Morris: County finances as easy as 1-2-3
Read a summary of the transition taskforce's report
Read the list of recommendations selected for immediate action

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