County tax increase
not yet a done deal
one seriously doubts that County Council will approve County
Executive Christopher Coons's proposed $164 million operating
budget, $60.6 sanitary-sewer budget and $11.6 million
capital-spending budget, but his request for a 17.5% increase in
the property-tax rate could be a different story.
Councilman George Smiley,
chairman of the finance committee, told Delaforum that he is
looking for a split decision which will be at least as close as
the nine-to-four approval of a more modest increase last year
and possibly even closer.
There has been no indication so
far that any member of Council is ready to bring forth a
substitute budget or offer any substantive amendments to any of
the five ordinances in the legislative package setting county
government's fiscal course for the year beginning July 1 which
will be voted upon on May 22.
That means that, in the still
unlikely event that Council were to reject the tax increase, it
would be necessary for the Coons administration to dip more
deeply into the operating reserve and further slash what it
already terms a bare-bones spending plan.
Chief financial officer Michael
Strine estimates that the reserve will total about $68 million
on June 30. That would be sufficient to support current spending
until November, 2008. If the proposed budget, including the tax
increase, is approved, he said the reserve will not run out
until early in the 2010-11 fiscal year.
Except for Smiley, who said he personally favors enactment
of the fiscal package, and Council president Paul Clark, who
told Delaforum he is "leaning toward supporting" it, Council
members were coy when discussing their intentions or ignored an
e.mail request from Delaforum posing specific questions in
William Powers, who represents
the western half of the area south of the Chesapeake & Delaware
Canal, would not give a direct response, but noted that "there
are a lot less [county] services in my district than you have
[in Brandywine Hundred]." Bill Bell, whose district covers the
southeastern portion of the county, did not attend the last in a
series of budget hearings on May 14 nor did he respond to the
William Tansey, co-chairman of
the finance committee, who also was not present at the hearing,
has previously expressed opposition to a tax increase, and
Timothy Sheldon has indicated he would like to see more
cost-cutting measures than Coons has proposed or put into
effect. Robert Weiner told Delaforum he wants to further "consider
the opinions of my constituents" before finally deciding how
Last year, Sheldon,
Tansey, Weiner and former Councilwoman Patty Powell, who was
Powers' predecessor, voted against a 5% tax increase. That was
the first in 11 years and the maximum the executive could
propose under a county law which has since been repealed. Tansey
cast the sole vote against approving the 2006-07 budget.
increase would bring the rate in unincorporated areas to 56.14¢
for each $100 of assessed property value, up from the present
47.78¢. The rate is scaled down in municipalities depending on
the extent of county services their residents receive.
Although the county
tax is generally considered to be relatively modest, compared to
property taxes in nearby Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland,
two of the five public school districts in the New Castle County
are proposing heftier increases, also levied on the value of
real estate. Residents of the Red Clay district will vote at a
referendum on May 17 and Brandywine residents will go to the
polls for that district's second try on June 4.
At the May 14
budget hearing, Strine told the finance committee that the
proposed capital budget is intended to finance only projects
currently underway. Major items included in it are: replacement
acquisitions for the motor vehicle fleet, $3.9 million; Glasgow
regional park, $1.9 million; information systems, $1.7 million;
and expansion of the Bear branch library, $1 million. Included
in $23.7 million to be spend on sewer projects are $4.4 million
for rehabilitation of the system in southern Brandywine Hundred
and $2.9 million in northern Brandywine Hundred.
Planned spending of
$34.2 million, he said, will be partly offset by removing $21.4
million in previously authorized capital spending from the
program and not renewing $1.2 million in authorizations
due to expire at the end of this fiscal year.
Although the county
debt is currently at 1% of assessed taxable property value,
which is well below the 3% ceiling, Strine said that the amount
of planned bond sales is limited because "we don't have the
money to pay the mortgage (debt service) on new borrowing."
Three bond sales currently are planned. The first will seek to
raise $50 million and the subsequent ones $25 million each.
The package of
ordinances on which Council will vote includes the operating
budget, the sewer fund budget; setting the county property
tax rates for unincorporated areas and municipalities; setting
the sewer-service rate; and authorizing the sale of bonds. No
change is proposed in the sewer-service rate.