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June 26,  2006

 County government has hired a consulting firm to look into how a stormwater utility could be set up, operated and financed. The idea is to gather under one umbrella -- no pun intended -- the responsibility for managing excess water so it won't cause problems up to and including the kind of serious flooding which resulted from a couple of big storms during the past couple of years. That would be paid for primarily  from a fund fed by a fee charged residential and commercial property owners based on the amount of impervious surface there is one their properties. It would be comparable to the way sanitary-sewer service is now financed.

Neither the need nor the appropriateness of the financing method is open to much dispute. Indeed, there are several hundred such utilities operating around the nation and, although there have been some court challenges over specific details, the consensus is that the arrangement enjoys a considerable amount of public acceptance.

County Executive Chris Coons and his administration emphasize that nothing has been decided and promise that the public will have ample opportunity to participate in devising a plan tailored to the county's specific needs.

That may all be well and good, but there is a significant qualification. The idea is being explored at the county level because, despite the recommendation of a proverbial blue-ribbon gubernatorial taskforce, legislators from Kent and Sussex Counties torpedoed doing it on a state level. As one member of County Council put it at a recent committee meeting: Why shouldn't they? Southern Delaware does not have a flooding threat of like proportion and a state-subsidized drainage-ditch system evidently is capable of mitigating what it does have.

County officials are careful to tread lightly when it comes to being critical of folks who run state government -- particularly those serving in the General Assembly.  To coin a phrase: Why shouldn't they be? County government is a creature of state government. State law trumps county law. When county government does something the powers-that-be in Dover don't like, it is a relatively simple matter to round up the necessary majorities in the Legislature to undo it. That has happened several times in recent memory although county officials say legislators have been amenable to working out reasonable solutions and maintain that county-state relations currently are well on the sunny side of acceptable.

So it came as a surprise when Councilwoman Karen Venezky came close to exploding at a recent  meeting when Council's public safety committee was briefed on provisions of a new state arrangement for dog control. A key provision provides that counties foot part of the bill. Calling that "another unfunded mandate" -- as in, we'll do it; you pay for it -- she complained that "time after time we capitulate to the two southern counties."

In a state as small as Delaware, she and others maintain, it makes sense to handle many public services statewide. Indeed, that is done with some major services. The most obvious one is road maintenance. In most other states, there are state highway and county roads; in Delaware it's all one system.

However, Venezky points out, there are many services essentially provided by the state to Kent and Sussex but not to New Castle. Police, libraries and parks are prime examples. While none of those are outright all-and-nothing propositions -- state police patrol major highways in New Castle County, for instance -- the proportions of state and local financing are lopsided.

Elaborating on her comments at the meeting for Delaforum, Venezky said she believes Delaware is one of only two states -- Mississippi is the other one -- that do not have some form of state-local revenue sharing. New Castle County, she said, contributes more than two-thirds of state revenue while getting back less than a third in state-provided services.

"It's time for the county and state [governments] to begin real serious discussions about how things are funded [so that] New Castle County gets its fair share," she said.

She added that it is high time for legislators representing New Castle County to begin thinking of functioning as a bloc -- as their southern Delaware colleagues do -- when it comes to representing their home county's interests.

Admittedly the counter argument is that, although New Castle County is basically dependent on real estate taxes, property owners here are living in a tax valhalla when contrasted with those across the line in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Venezky agrees that "living in Delaware is a bargain," but said that is not necessarily something that is going to continue indefinitely. "Our (county government) obligations are growing and growing," she said.

As county government seeks ways to deal with its long-term financial needs the issue she raises should lead the agenda.

2006. All rights reserved.

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