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
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
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
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