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
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
"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
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.