January 12, 2005

There's no call to bad-mouth New Castle County government about its finances or doubt its fiscal health say members of County Council and the chief financial officer.

Councilwoman Karen Venezky, who chairs the finance committee, wonders why newspaper accounts and a pending suit in Court of Chancery raise doubts about where things stand while the recently published annual financial report, which was independently audited, tells an opposite story.

She said during discussion at a finance committee meeting on Jan. 11 that it is time to set things straight.

New Year resolution?

At precisely 7 p.m. Council president Paul Clark called the first session of 2005 to order.

All members except Penrose Hollins, who did not attend the semi-monthly session, were in their seats and ready to begin work.

Although no one commented, regular attenders noted it is most unusual for Council sessions to begin at the appointed time.

Clark had waited several minutes before bring his gavel down, The clock on the dais read 7:07  and the one on the rear wall read 7:05 when he did. But both of those instruments were ahead of the actual time.

In other matters which came up during a busy day, Council:

● Approved realigning the county executive's staff and hiring five key aides to the new incumbent, Chris Coons.

● Agreed that it is not interested in having a duplicate set of offices in the suburbs, but could use some additional meeting space there.

● Received ordinances to change the conditions of the public safety grant to the city of Wilmington, to preserve the upscale status of a Christiana Hundred community, and to pull advertising out of Community Publications' weekly newspapers.

The discussion about the county's financial condition was touched off by a request from auditor Robert Hicks to have Council accept a proposal from Ernst & Young, the firm which audits the county's books, to conduct a 'risk assessment' of its finances. Doing so was one of the firm's recommendations in its report of the fiscal 2003 audit.

Hicks said it would be a normal thing in an organization the size of county government to secure an independent outside appraisal of internal financial controls and provide a good basis for him to direct his internal auditing function.

Venezky asked why the county should pay $49,500 for such a study

when Ernst & Young had  already found both the 2003 and fiscal 2004financial reports to be accurate and specifically declared county finances to be "low risk."

She said she would prefer that a risk assessment, if undertaken, should be comprehensive and cover all potential risks, not just financial ones.

"If we're doing such a good job [managing finances], why not have that confirmed?" Councilman Penrose Hollins said. "Let's stop being defensive and giving the impression we're trying to cover up."

Finance officer Ronald Morris said he takes personal offense over the innuendos going around. "Some of the comments I hear after 31 years in this government disturb me," he said.

Citing the triple-A bond ratings the county's debt securities have consistently been given in recent years, Morris said it is highly improbable that all three national bond-rating services would be in error in determining that New Castle's finances are in good condition. "Their [ratings] would be useless if we were not in that shape," he said.

Council president Paul Clark said that apparent confusion over the size of the county's budget reserves -- or surplus, as it has been commonly referred to -- is a matter of concern. He said the county's financial reporting "is in a form [that] accountants and auditors like, [but] I don't think the average citizen understands it."

In an ordinance and accompanying resolution which Council approved unanimously during its semi-monthly session, Coons's staffing preference was accomplished by shifting authorizations for three positions in the Department of Land Use and one each in the Departments of Community Services and Special Services to the executive office. Reclassifying and combining positions, including those already authorized for the executive office, results in no net change in the cost of salaries and employee benefits.

Added to the position of chief administrative officer, which is provided for in state law, are a deputy chief administrative officer, chief of staff, director of communications and policy director. All are appointive positions, not included in the county's civil service merit system.

Salaries of the chief administrative officer, deputy chief administrative officer and chief of staff range from $84,475 in the first year of service to $130,389 after seven years. Coons is limited to having two four-year terms in office. The director of communications makes between $78,872 in the first year to $122,358 in the 10th year. The range for policy director is $53,383 to $82,816.

Four of the five positions have been filled: David Singleton, chief administrative officer; Lynne Howard, deputy chief administrative officer; Richard Przywara, chief of staff; and Nicole Majeski, policy director.

Suburban office space would be in the bank building which the county has acquired next door to the Government Center in New Castle Corporate Commons. It is mostly occupied by the community services department. Council is based in the Redding Building in downtown Wilmington and that would remain its principal office.

Wilmington is designated as the 'county seat', but it is uncertain what that entails. Most day-to-day functions of county government are carried on outside of the city.

Councilman Robert Weiner questioned spending money to set up additional offices after spending $1.5 million to renovate the eighth floor of the Redding Building to accommodate the expanded Council and its staff.

Hollins said he "heard through the grapevine" about the idea of additional offices and was concerned that a decision had been made "without Council involvement."

Councilman William Tansey said the idea grew out of an informal discussion among those attending a ceremonial ribbon cutting at the bank building and involved just providing access to a desk, telephone and computer and space for meeting constituents. "This isn't being done in secret; nobody's trying to exclude anybody," he said.

Venezky said she, for one, would appreciate a location to meet with constituents without requiring them to "come downtown where they have to pay for parking."

The additional space also would provide room for the Board of Adjustment, Historic Review Board and the like to meet with sufficient room for members of the public to attend. "Right now we're not doing a good job of making it comfortable for them," said Clark, who formerly was a member of the adjustment board.

No decision was reached about whether to accept the offer of space.

The first 2005 ordinance, which Hollins introduced, would change from $5 million to $2.5 million the amount of the $15 million grant to Wilmington that would have to be used for police vehicles. Like the rest of the money, it could be used for any police purpose.

Preamble of the proposed ordinance said that since the original three-year grant was authorized last year "an unprecedented crisis of violence has occurred in the city which requires more leeway in public safety spending, particularly for increased manpower."

A proposed ordinance under Tansey's sponsorship would rezone Sedgely Farms from 'NC15', which requires lot with a minimum of 15,000 square feet, to "NC40' which carries a 40 square foot minimum. The preamble said that would "more accurately reflect the ... area characteristics."

The Unified Development Code presently requires publication of weekly advertisements to give public notice of hearings and submission of land development plans in the News Journal and Community Publications' newspapers. That company publishes separate editions distributed free in the Greenville and Hockessin areas and in Brandywine and Mill Creek Hundreds.

According to the synopsis of the proposed ordinance dropping the Community Publications' newspapers, use of mailed notices and posted signs make it "no longer desirable or acceptable for the county to provide public notice to only a limited portion of the whole county population" which receive the weekly newspapers. Venezky is sponsor of that ordinance.

The fiscal note said, the $326,000 not spent with Community Publications would partly offset by the additional $260,000 cost of expanding the ads in the News Journal from a half page using black ink to a full page printed in color.

2005. All rights reserved.

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