Soon after the turn of the year
County Council will face the challenge of beginning to cope with
a financial situation which the Coons administration has
compared to a run-away train barreling toward certain disaster.
Doing so will require members to confront a politician's worst
nightmare -- raising taxes.
Not only are consecutive
increases in the property tax rate all but certain but, as
reported here over the weekend, the Financial Future Taskforce
has put together a long list of recommendations for short- and
long-term measures to reinvent the entire system by which county
government takes in and spends money.
Virtually all of them come up
against the vested interests of one bloc of county residents or
another. The senior-citizen tax and sewer-fee discounts, free
admission to parks and popular events, the tax-free status some
quasi-commercial organizations enjoy and the low
assessed-to-market ratio in property valuation are just a few
examples where changes will not happen without considerable
That would be bad enough but
it all has to happen against a perception of robust fiscal
health deliberately cultivated over more than a decade. A public
conditioned by additional services with no tax hikes and glowing
reports of huge budget surpluses, gilt-edge bond ratings and
rich-uncle responses to a variety of appeals for aid is now
being told that all was not exactly as rosy as had been supposed
or, at least, that the party is over and the consequences of
over-indulging have to be faced.
Although the taskforce and its
committees went about the process of receiving and discussing an
extensive amount of detailed data leading up to its conclusions
in full public view, it attracted little attention. Taskforce
Vincent D'Anna lamented that media
coverage of its deliberations seemed to be in inverse proportion
to the significance of the issue. County Executive Chris Coons
said his only disappointment was "the lack of broad public
awareness of the working, or even the existence, of this group."
First of the taskforce's
recommendations already is before Council in the form of an
ordinance to repeal the 5% limit on the size of a property-tax
increase the executive is permitted to request when he presents
a fiscal 2008 budget in March. "Unless the cap is lifted, the
administration cannot submit a realistic budget," said chief
financial officer Michael Strine.
While there is some symbolic
import in doing so, the practical effect of lifting it is
benign. The quirky ban applies just to what the executive can
recommend and does not impose any restriction on what Council
can enact. If it were left intact, Council would be faced this
coming spring with the legislative equivalent of deciding
between two sets of books.
There might be something to be
said for having an austere administration proposal containing
the service cuts that would be required to come in under 5%. It
would be not unlike the 'school board 101' exercise of
threatening cuts in sports programs and extra-curricular
activities as a way of cajoling public acceptance of a tax
increase at a referendum. That would at least partly answer the
basic question of what county services residents value and how
much they are willing to pay for them.
Rather than play such games
with the public, however, the rational approach of repeal is far
more preferable. It would send a signal that Council is indeed
willing to accept that there is a problem and that it is not
beyond solution if faced honestly and intelligently.
George Smiley, acting chairman
of Council's finance committee and sponsor of the repeal
ordinance, told Delaforum he expects that "a majority of Council
will do the right thing" when the measure comes before it on
Jan. 9. We hope that he is right.
Read related Delaforum
prepares package of ideas
to deal with county budget crisis
Read previous Delaforum article:
Ordinance would repeal tax hike cap