Clark say no
tax increase this year
Executive Christopher Coons said unequivocally that he
will not seek an increase in the property-tax rate when he
submits his proposed budget for the coming fiscal year. Council
president Paul Clark said he wouldn't vote to enact one anyway.
"It is my very real
hope that we'll get through this year's budget and next year's"
without an increase, Coons said. "I would like to get through to
2012, [although] that is highly unlikely."
He said the outcome
of labor negotiations now under way with unions representing
most of county government's workforce "is going to be the
The comments from
the county's two top officials came in response to questions
from the audience at a well-attended 'town meeting' sponsored by
the Greater Hockessin Area Development Association on Jan. 21.
They apparently put a lid on widespread expectations that
property owners are in line for a third consecutive year of
Clark did not
dissent from the executive's comments indicating his
administration is taking a tough line in the talks, but did say
he is concerned that government's ability to attract and retain
good employees would be jeopardized if the gap between what they
make working for the county and could make in the private sector
is widened. Clark specified lawyers and engineers just coming
out of college who, he said, can command higher salaries than
more experienced counterparts on the public payroll.
"We have a very
good labor force. It is well respected," he said. "They need to
have a wage they can live on in the county."
Coons had pointed out that
employees he appoints outside the county's civil service 'merit'
system did not receive pay raises this year. He contrasted that
to personnel costs still increasing annually by about 6% --
down, he said, from 8% when he took office three years ago --
well above the rate at which county revenue is growing.
Personnel costs account for about 70% of county government
He said there are
about 100 fewer county workers than when he took office. The
reduction was accomplished through attrition. He also said his
administration is responsible for some $30 million worth of
budget cuts and enhanced revenue during the past 18 months.
"We're doing more with less," he said.
Adhering to a
policy of keeping details of contract negotiations secret, Coons
did not specify what the administration is offering in the way
of pay and benefits. But he did remark pointedly with reference
to any increase, "My folks got zero."
He also hinted
strongly, without providing any details, that major structural
changes in the contracts also are at issue. "There are
provisions in our contracts that have to be revised," he said.
"We are not going to have an easy year in labor relations."
a large majority of county employees expire in April. As
Delaforum previously reported, one which expired last April has
gone to binding arbitration -- the first time that has ever
happened with a county-government labor contract.
According to a
report just provided to County Council, spending during the
first half of the current fiscal year was running $3.3 million,
or 2%, lower than budgeted. Revenue was off $300,000.
The county finance
department is now projecting that spending this fiscal year will
exceed revenue by $4.9 million. That does not include three
extraordinary obligations -- a $7.5 million judgment in a
lawsuit over the still unopened hotel off Interstate 95 near
Basin Road; $700,000 in 'lost' revenue as a result of a reduced
tax assessment for Verizon Corp.; and the $430,000
state-mandated cost for taking responsibility for dog control.
The first two are being appealed.
The report, which
is based on an assumption that current fiscal policies will
continue, now estimates that budget reserves will run out some
time in the fiscal year which begins on July 1, 2010. The report
issued last month said that was expected a year later.
Coons said that the
budget he proposes in March will include some significant
modifications of previous practices. That could include capping
spending at 98% of anticipated revenue plus reserves, as state
government does. Also possible would be limiting the amount of
'windfall' revenue, such as was produced in past years as a
result of the real estate boom, that could be spent on current
operations. "We're changing the rules of budgeting as we go
forward," he said.
Before the start of
the current fiscal year on July 1, Council raised the
property-tax rate 17.5%
to 56.14¢ for each $100 of assessed property
value in unincorporated areas. It was increased 5% from 45.5¢ to
previous year. The rate is scaled down in municipalities depending upon
the extent of county services their residents receive.
Tansey, who represents the Christiana Hundred area the
'umbrella' Hockessin association serves, described himself as
"an anti-tax person" and said he favors spending cuts over tax
increases. "We have to be more diligent about how we're spending
money," he said. He did not offer any specifics.
Tansey was one of
five members of the 13-member Council who voted against
approving Coons's budget request, which included the 17.5% tax
increase, this year. He was the only Council member who voted
'no' on the 5% fiscal 2007 increase.
With or without a
further increase, Clark said, "at a buck a day ... county
government is still the best deal out there." He was referring
to the $354 average tax bill for residential property.
collects the total bill, county government does not levy the
much larger school and school crossing guard taxes and collects
no more than the actual cost of street lighting in communities
where developers or residents elect to have lights.
Clark said many
residents want increased services without considering that they
are directly tied to how much they are willing to pay to finance
them. "What we do in the future depends on what you tell us you
want us to do," he said.
In response to a
questioner who said he or she had never seen a county police
officer patrolling in his or her development, Clark said that is
not likely to be true, adding that he or she should be grateful
that community does not have as much crime as other areas while
pointing out that an enlarged Hockessin branch library is
scheduled to reopen in April and that the area has
well-patronized county parks.
Most of the
questions at the meeting were submitted anonymously by attenders
using index cards. Joseph Amon, publisher of the Community News
weekly newspapers, moderated the meeting.
Coons said his
administration will continue to seek approval from the state
legislature to expand and diversify its sources of revenue.
Specifically, he said, he will press for passage of legislation
to increase its share of the hotel tax, as the Wilmington city
Clark said there is
a widespread but erroneous belief that county government can
impose all sorts of revenue-enhancing schemes. "We do not have
the right to impose different taxes. We have to go to the state
for permission," he said.
Coons said that
county government will not undertake a general reassessment of
property values, a move that had been recommended by its
financial future taskforce. Under existing state law, the county
would be limited to a 15% increase in revenue, which is about
what the reassessment would cost, he explained.
"We would tick off
a majority of the population and [undergo] months if not years
of appeals for no net increase in revenue," he said. "We will
not pursue it without a change in state law and that's
The officials said
the county is looking for economic growth to help relieve its
financial situation. Currently in the offing are expected
increases in population and jobs as the result of the Army's
moving its communications base from Fort Monmouth, N.J., to
Aberdeen, Md. "It's a very real possibility we'll have 1,500
[new] jobs with average wages around $80,000 [a year]" in
businesses related to the expansion of the nearby base, Coons
said. "It's potentially a big win for New Castle County."
"It's not a fight I
choose to wade into," Coons said in response to a question about
what role county government will play in relation to the ban on
dumping yard waste into the Cherry Island Marsh landfill, which
goes into effect on Jan. 24.
Unlike Kent County,
he said, New Castle will not attempt to set up trash-collection
districts but will "encourage civic associations to negotiate
with haulers the way you do with snow removal." As to the
general issue of increasing the extent of recycling, he said
that "is an issue which sits with the General Assembly."
He did say that the
Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control is
looking at sites in eastern and western Brandywine Hundred where
yard waste can be taken to be mulched. Two such sites are now in