Council for limited
increase in county spending
owners apparently will be spared a third consecutive tax
increase, but County Executive Christopher Coons told them a
relatively modest 4.4% boost in what they pay for sanitary-sewer
service is in the offing and that county government is still
facing lean years.
In his annual
budget address before a special session of County Council, Coons
said that, so far, it is possible to cope with what appears to
be a worsening financial situation without significantly cutting
essential services or having to lay off county employees.
presented to Council call for using $22.2 million from cash
reserves to finance what otherwise would be a budget
shortfall. County government is prohibited by law from actual
Council has the
ultimate say in determining the budget and setting tax rates and
sewer fees, but the practice for as long as anyone can remember
is for it to approve, without significant change, what the
county executive requests. Council's finance committee will hold
budget hearings beginning on Mar. 25. It must enact the budget
before the end of May.
Coons is asking
Council to approve spending $171.9 million on general
operations, $63.8 million to provide sanitary-sewer service and
$4.2 million to pay for street lighting in neighborhoods that
have chosen to have lights. Property taxes and the county's
share of the state real estate transfer tax are the primary
sources of revenue for general operations; sewer fees finance
sewer services; the street-light tax is paid only by residents
of the affected communities and is passed through to Delmarva
Power. In addition, the county levies a separate property-based
tax to pay for crossing guards assigned to intersections near
public, religious and private schools.
Coons said the
combined proposed $239.8 million budget represents 4.9% growth
over what was originally budgeted for the current fiscal year.
Background information provided in a press briefing by chief
financial officer Michael Strine said debt service, public
safety and energy and fuel costs account for all but $1.4
million of the increase. Excluding those, he said, would
indicate slightly more than a half of 1% growth.
"Basically, this is
a bare-bones budget," Strine said.
After amendments enacted by
Council since approving the budget last May, authorized
general-fund spending this current fiscal year is $167.2
million. That indicates a proposed 2.8% increase for the coming
year. There have been no changes in budgeted $60.6 million
sewer-fund spending. That indicates 5% growth. The proposed
street-lighting budget is a 2.4% increase over $4.1 million this
year. The general-fund reserve is expected to stand at $61.9
million and the sewer-fund reserve at $13.7 million at the end
of the year.
Among other things,
budget amendments provided for the cost of dog-control which the
General Assembly made a county-government responsibility,
outside attorneys' fees and the cost of implementing the
licensing of building contractors.
In his address on
Mar. 18 Coons said the increase in sewer fees will be used to
pay for a "proposal for expanded sewer system investments" that
he will submit to Council "within the month." He was not
specific. Strine said later that referred to "planned upgrades"
to the system both north and south of the Chesapeake & Delaware
Coons also said a
plan for increasing police service "is in its early stages."
Included in the proposed budget is the cost of training about 15
prospective county officers in a police academy class to begin
next January. That many are currently being trained. Background
information that Strine presented referred to a plan to conduct
annual classes to at least keep pace with normal attrition in
the county force.
"This is a budget
based on what we can afford," Coons said. "Our outlook for
[fiscal] '09 is one that calls for us to continue our work on
cutting back our expenditures and showing fiscal restraint."
That challenge, he
added, is "becoming more dramatic as our national and regional
Closer at hand are
labor contracts now being negotiated with unions representing a
large majority of county employees. That was accented by an
informational picket line outside the Redding Building, where
Coons gave his address.
In his talk Coons
said he is "hopeful -- even optimistic -- that by working with
union leadership we can come to agreement on contracts that
provide a decent living wage and real job security for the men
and women of county government." The proposed budget provides
for meeting the contractual obligation to make pay increases
based on longevity, but doesn't provide for the usual annual
upward adjustment of the pay scales to reflect an increase in
the cost of living.
Coons said it is
"critical" that overall increases in salaries, pensions and
health-care benefits be limited to 4.5% if the county "is going
to get its personnel cost ... in line with other similar
As would be
expected, Coons did not refer to this being an election year. He
has announced that he is going to seek re-election to a second
term. Former executive Thomas Gordon reportedly intends to
challenge him in a primary election for the Democratic party
nomination to run for the office.
In the press
briefing Strine said political considerations did not figure in
the recommendations he made while the proposed budget was being
Coons said it is
necessary to adopt a "pay-as-you-go approach" to finance any new
services. "We will have to raise revenues or find offsetting
costs to pay for them," he said.
While he said he
was precluded by the financial situation from suggesting any
significant initiatives now, he did propose extending
eligibility for assistance in making the down payment and paying
settlement costs when buying a house to members of the National
Guard, military reserves and active-duty armed forces.
his position that the county needs from the state General
Assembly authorization to provide for additional sources of
revenue to offset the near-total dependence on real
estate-related financing. "We cannot continue our current
'band-aid' approach to financing county government
indefinitely," he said.