he'll do what's
needed to avert budget crisis
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
"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
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
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
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."