December, 2006

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 resistance.

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 member 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 article: Panel prepares package of ideas to deal with county budget crisis

Read previous Delaforum article: Ordinance would repeal tax hike cap

2006. All rights reserved.

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