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March 29, 2006

 

In the unlikely event there was any doubt that the prospect of imposing an election-year tax hike would be divisive, it was quickly dispelled when County Council came up for the first time against the reality that the issue will not go away.

It was only a preliminary skirmish, but it not only forced a rare closest-possible vote but also sparked a brief angry personal clash on the chamber floor and a more civil but nonetheless pointed dispute between two veteran Council members.

Obvious in all that was a conclusion that battle lines are being drawn for an eight-week fight over what the Coons administration contends is a "fiscally responsible" course to deal with a looming financial crisis and its critics claim is an alarmist approach to a situation that can be handled in a  more politically palatable way.

Councilwoman Karen Venezky may have characterized what is in store when she defined a controversial proposal she placed before Council as meeting "our responsibility to go at this as a separate branch of government." To that end, her resolution -- which was approved by a seven-to-six vote -- authorized dipping into Council's contingency fund to hire a financial consultant to examine County Executive Christopher Cooons's fiscal 2007 budget request.

Councilman Penrose Hollins called that "a waste of taxpayers' money" and an unjustified slap at the integrity of the administration, which only a year ago commissioned a consultant to do a complete examination of the county's financial situation. "It's consultant after consultant after consultant in the hope to come up with a bright idea," he said. "We're trying to consult our way out of our problems."

No amount was specified in the resolution, but $20,000 was bandied about during debate.

Siding with Venezky when the resolution was put to vote were Council president Paul Clark, Joseph Reda, William Tansey, George Smiley, John Cartier and Timothy Sheldon. Joining Hollins on the short end of the vote were Robert Weiner, Patty Powell, Jea Street, David Tackett and William Bell.

Observers generally regard Venezky, who chairs Council's finance committee and has announced that she will not seek re-election in November, as being less than favorably inclined towards Coons; Hollins, who is the longest-serving Council member,  has been consistently supportive of Coons.

During the floor debate over the resolution, Street contended that hiring a consultant amounts to Council shirking its duty. "We issue a blank check to some firm to do our job," he said.

Street touched a raw nerve when he accused Clark of "spending what you want to spend when you want to spend" while using cost as reason for rejecting such things as Street's recent effort to retrain pit bull dogs and to provide support to the city of Wilmington. "It's 'no' to cops; it's 'no' to children, but we want to give someone a blank check," he said.

Clark banged his desk and angrily accused Street of misrepresenting his positions on those issues. Street shouted back words to the effect that his characterization was truthful.

Later, when things had cooled somewhat, Street said Clark's support of the resolution was "for the sole purpose of sabotaging the [Coons] administration." He said he will work to deny Clark votes in Street's 10th Council District, which includes about half of the city and some suburban communities on its southern outskirts, in any future election.

Sheldon said he signed on to co-sponsor of Venezky's resolution to avoid the possibility of having to vote on a significant matter without fully understanding it. "How can we run government without a tax increase? That's the only question I have," he said.

During a finance committee meeting earlier in the day on Mar. 28, Venezky said that, although her resolution specifically referred only to the budget for the coming fiscal year, her intent was to use the consultant to chart a course to avoid having successive tax increases during the next five years, as administration figures indicate will be necessary.

Clark told the committee meeting that he wants a consultant's study to have a basis for determining what Council should do when it has to enact a budget and set a tax rate in May. "Right now, I picture a trainwreck [coming] in the next two months," he said.

Considered in a different context, that remark points up the possibility that the calendar might render Venezky's resolution academic.

To arrange a consultant study, it is necessary to solicit proposals, which have to be evaluated before a contract is awarded. Even on an expedited basis, that process would eat up close to a month. Whether there would be sufficient remaining time for a study thorough enough to produce meaningful recommendations is questionable.

Council is required by law to act on the budget by the end of May, a month before the new fiscal year begins on Jul. 1. In the normal course, May 23 will be the latest date that could be done at a regular session. The finance committee will begin weekly budget hearings on Apr. 3.

In a separate presentation at the committee meeting, Council received a Department of Finance monthly report which projected an operating deficit that fiscal year that would $1.1 million less than what had been forecast a month earlier. The change resulted from increased revenue from property taxes which more than offset a lower amount from the county's share of the  reality transfer tax.

Adjusted to reflect the proposed fiscal 2007 budget, the current report envisions the operating reserve running out in fiscal 2009, a year earlier than the previous report did.

Council also was told that the administration now intends to borrow money to finance capital projects by going to the bond market in June or July.

2006. All rights reserved.

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