February 2, 2007

Exec said he'll do what's
needed to avert budget crisis

Christopher Coons told a group of civic leaders that belt-tightening steps he has ordered are beginning to adversely affect county services but that he's prepared to go further if that proves to be necessary.

"No matter what the [labor] contracts say, I have the ability to lay off people to avoid the county going bankrupt," he said at his monthly meeting with officers of area 'umbrella' civic associations.

When asked about the possibility of going beyond attrition to address personnel costs, which account for nearly three-fourths of the county budget, "I cannot tell people that the answer is 'no'," Coons said.

"We're not there yet," he added. "It would only happen if we fail to significantly cut back our expenses and increase our revenue."

Apparently recognizing that his comments during a discussion of county government's fiscal situation at the meeting on Feb. 1 were the most blunt that he has voiced publicly, he explained that they were not intended as a scare tactic. "My objective is not to play chicken," he said.

Responding to a suggestion by Fritz Greisinger, of Pike Creek Civic League, that he ignore County Council's having removed the 5% ceiling on how much of a property-tax increase he can propose and submit a "doomsday budget" for the coming fiscal year, Coons referred to one of several  'what-if' finance department projections which showed limiting the increase to 5% would require elimination of several county services and possible shutdowns of entire departments between now and 2012.

"Those are 'doomsday scenarios'. My job is to not get there," Coons said.

He said department general managers now presenting their requested fiscal 2008 budgets for his review as he prepares his overall budget proposal are saying they are feeling the pinch of the job freeze he has imposed. Unless they can justify exceptions as being essential, managers have been forbidden to fill positions which become vacant through retirements and resignations.

He also has directed them to take the present year's spending authorization, add the cost of mandated merit-system pay increases and then ask for no more than 96% of that sum for the coming year. The 2007-08 fiscal year begins July 1.

"We squeezed last year; we have squeezed harder this year; and we're going to squeeze some more next year," Coons said. "The general managers have told me they can't squeeze more."

"Tell me what you don't want [in the way of services] from county government," Paul Clark, president of County Council, said rhetorically. "People still want this county government to function at a high level."

Clark said he finds it "profoundly frustrating" to talk of vacant positions and contracting the delivery of services. "How do we pay for the people we have today and how do you [finance] the service levels [residents] say they want?" he said.

Coons said talk about county services includes not only libraries, parks and the like but also emergency sewer repairs during the night, police calls and response by paramedics. Some of those services, he noted, are provided when "literally someone's life is on the line."

He said that, during the two years he has been in office, direct comments he has received from the public about county employees "have been overwhelmingly positive."

George Lossť, of Claymont Community Coalition, said there is a direct relationship between job performance and salaries. "If you're going to get quality people, you are going to have to pay for them," he said.

The tax increase that everyone conversant with the situation considers certain to come is one of several recommendations made by the Financial Future Taskforce in its recent interim report. The blue-ribbon panel is about to reconvene to tackle the formidable job of crafting additional recommendations in response to a consultant study of county employees' salaries and fringe benefits.

Coons has not commented publicly on results of the study, but at the meeting with civic leaders indicated that he recognizes "there are some [practices] in vacations, severance [payments] and medical benefits that are above the scale" in comparison with other governments and the private sector.

Clark said that the moratorium on property-tax increases imposed by Coons's predecessor, Thomas Gordon, is largely responsible for the present situation. "If taxes had just gone [up] with the consumer price index during the past 10 years, we'd be all right," he said. Instead, "we're trying to finance our government with 1990s dollars."

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