seen bettering fiscal health
Executive Christopher Coons's proposed budget "gets us in a
significantly better place, but we still have work to do,"
according to chief financial officer Michael Strine.
Presenting a detailed overview of
the revenue-and-spending plan Coons has put before Council,
Strine said that current projections show operating reserves
being depleted around November, 2010, if Council approves it
essentially as submitted. That would be two years later than if
nothing were done to significantly change current income and
He disclosed at a meeting of
Council's finance committee on Mar. 26 that a major effort
is being made in negotiations now underway with the union which
represents maintenance and construction workers to alter the
county's wage and employee benefits structure. He did not give
any details about the administration's position but, in a
separate context, referred to a need to reduce costs associated
with accumulation of sick leave and vacation time, and with
pension benefits. He also indicated that automatic pay increases
might also be brought to the bargaining table.
Obtaining the union's agreement
to make concessions in its new contract, coupled with pay
freezes affecting political appointees and other non-union
employees, he said, will bring about a third of the county
government workforce into line with some of the recommendations
derived from a consultant's report comparing wages and benefits
with other local governments and the private sector. Personnel
costs account for about 75% of the New Castle County budget.
Municipal Workers Local 459 is
the only bargaining unit which has a contract up for renewal
this year. Other county unions will come to the table in 2008.
negotiating posture apparently
is in advance of its receiving specific recommendations from the
financial future taskforce which is considering the consultant
report. No meetings of the taskforce are currently scheduled.
For the most part, Council
members at the committee meeting received Strine's presentation
without tipping their hands about their respective positions as
the finance committee begins six weeks of budget hearings. A few
did drop some hints, however. As with all standing committees,
all members of Council sit on the finance committee.
Referring to Coons's decision to
do away with a separate community governing office and
transferring its eight staff members into four operating
departments, Councilman David Tackett said that "we're pulling
back from our commitments to communities." Strine said that the
eight workers will perform functions similar to what they do now
in their new posts, while also being available for other duties.
The transfers do not take effect until the start of the new
fiscal year on July 1.
Strine said that 42 vacant
positions in several departments are to be eliminated and 19
others will go unfinanced during the coming fiscal year. Most
severely hit will be the Department of Special Services --
the county's equivalent of a public works department -- which
will lose a combined total of 15 slots. The Department of Land
Use will lose 13.
He said no front-line police or
paramedic positions will be cut and, in fact, candidates are
being recruited and trained to fill all authorized but currently
Councilman William Tansey
questioned why it is planned that Westover Hills, an
unincorporated community, will be charged the full cost of
maintaining a police substation there. Strine replied that that
Christiana Hundred community, at its own request, is receiving
more intense police service than all other unincorporated
communities. Middletown, an incorporated municipality, also will
be charged full costs for supplemenrtal police services, he
Council president Paul Clark
asked why "we have tons of spokespeople" spread through the
various departments. Strine said that, although there are
several 'public information officers', their duties go beyond
Councilman Jea Street said he is
concerned about the number of county vehicles that employees are
entitled to take to their homes and the amount of gasoline that
is being used for other than official business. He also
suggested that the county "sell Rockwood [Mansion Park] and some
of the other parks we don't need." Strine said the take-home
policy is under review and will be explained at the departmental
budget hearings. The parks, he said, are deed restricted for
that use and therefore would not likely be appealing to
When Clark asked if there are any
'time bombs' in the county coffers, Strine replied that the
uncertain cost of litigation and post-employment liabilities are
the most significant. Although current expectations are that the
real-estate market has bottomed out, future declines in
transactions affecting the real estate transfer tax are still
possible, he added.
Strine said Council approval of
Coons's proposed budget will increase expected revenue in fiscal
2008 by $17.1 million to $163.2 million and that spending will
grow by $5.9 million to $168.9 million. The annual deficit, he
said, will be reduced from the previously projected $37.1
million to $5.7 million. Consequently, reserves, exclusive of
the 'rainy day' emergency reserve, will only drop from $68.1
million to $62.4 million, instead of the previously anticipated
$31 million, by June 30, 2008.
He is still projecting deficit
spending in foreseeable future years, but said that does not
reflect possible state government support and agreements with
the other unions that could alleviate some employment costs.
While the focus necessarily is on
the general-fund operating budget, Strine said the sanitary
sewer fund budget "is healthy" and not be until fiscal 2011 will
it be necessary to "factor in modest [rate] increases."