October 8,  2008

Property owners will face
a two-legged tax increase

If County Council agrees to the Coons administration's public safety initiative -- as it is highly likely it will -- the tax increase needed to finance it will be in addition to what appears likely to be a hefty property-tax hike to finance continuing operations.

"We're going to need [an increase] just to keep the lights on ... to provide the services we render today," chief administrative officer Jeffry Bullock told Council's public safety committee after he and David Roberts, chief of the emergency communications unit, unveiled the second component of the two-part initiative.

It calls for adding 16 new employees over the next five years to the unit's current 78 authorized positions and restructuring the organizational chart to provide a "career path" so that call operators can be promoted from what now are essentially dead-end jobs.

The unit now has a 30% employee-turnover rate, the highest  in county government's workforce. Roberts attributed that to inability to move up to higher-paying jobs. Many of those who leave, however, do so for other county jobs.

As Delaforum previously reported, the main component of the five-year plan to implement the initiative would increase authorized strength of the police force from the present 364 officers, by 117 more officers and 12 civilian positions before the end of fiscal year 2013.  The plan would add 22 police officers and seven civilians this fiscal year and 25 officers and two civilians in the year which begins July 1, 2009.

The communications unit would get an additional eight call operators, two assistant chiefs, a training coordinator and a quality assurance coordinator this year and two platoon leaders next year.

The initiative's pricetag is somewhat vague. Acting chief financial officer Edward Milowicki distributed a chart at the committee meeting on Oct. 7 which included data which added up to $17,285,630 over the five years, but said the line referring to the police proposal included only the cost of the additional personnel to be added this year. He indicated that the communications proposal line was cumulative over the five years it will take to implement.

Data supplied later by Milowicki at Delaforum's request put the cumulative cost at an estimated $37.5 million spread over the next four years. That  included pricetags of $1 million this fiscal year and $3.6 million next year to finance additional police. The communications component is pegged at $768,000 and $1 million, respectively.  Because paying for additional personnel is a continuing obligation, the combined estimated costs for both components would rise annually to $13.4 million in fiscal 2013.

At the committee meeting on Sept. 30 at which the police proposal was presented, Bullock spoke of a property-tax increase of between 4% and 5% as necessary to finance the first two years of the entire initiative. Council would have to enact that increase by the end of May, 2009, to take effect with bills due the following Sept. 30. The first-year cost would be paid for from budget reserves which would be replaced after the tax increase kicks in, Bullock said.

He told Delaforum after the Oct. 7 meeting that he hopes to have draft legislation to implement the initiative ready for introduction when Council next meets in plenary session on Oct. 14. Following normal procedure, it could be enacted as soon as two weeks after introduction.

Police chief Rick Gregory previously said it is hoped that implementation can begin with the police academy class scheduled to begin training in December.

Bullock gave no indication of how large a tax increase the administration will seek to finance operations next fiscal year. After successive increases of 5% and 17% in the previous two fiscal years, County Executive Christopher Coons did not ask for one this year.

The fiscal 2010 budget process is now underway. Coons, a Democrat who will be re-elected to a second term without Republican opposition in November, is scheduled to deliver his budget proposal to Council in March.

Explaining that 52 of every dollar county government spends goes to finance the Department of Public Safety at its current staffing level, Bullock said the limit to how much can be cut from the overall budget has been reached.

Noting that when the local media got around to reporting about the public safety initiative, a popular radio talk program "began sounding off about doing more with less," Council president Paul Clark said. He added that it is unrealistic to believe county government can continue to provide services at the levels the public expects and wants without a tax increase.

"We are at a level of services where a step down [would be] intolerable. ... Either we close the parks and libraries or we raise taxes," Clark said. "I don't think bake sales are going to do it."

Bullock repeated his previous challenge to Council members that they not authorize the public safety initiative unless they are willing to commit up front to pay for it next year and in subsequent years.

The 12 of 13 Council members who attended the Oct. 7 meeting seemed receptive to strengthening the county's public safety capabilities.

"We can have all the nice parks we want. We can have all the nice libraries we want. But if {our] constituents are not safe, they are all a waste of money," said George Smiley, who is a co-chairman of Council's finance committee.

Jea Street, who represents what he describes as the Council district with the highest crime rate and Council's most outspoken advocate for a larger police force, said: "What is the cost if the police officer doesn't get there in time? What [happens if] the call operator isn't there to instruct the kid about what to do to keep from getting burned up?"

"We've reached a critical point where we're going to have to make some tough decisions," said William Bell, who co-chairs the public safety committee with Street.

The closest thing to a dissent about the prospect of a tax increase came form William Powers, who represents part of the area south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. He said that much of the emergency responses his constituents receive come from Kent County rather than New Castle County. "They wonder if they're sending their taxes in the wrong direction," he said.

Roberts told the meeting that the public's use of cellular telephones has dramatically increased the number of calls that operators must handle. He said 60 calls reporting a recent vehicle fire were received and handled by four operators.

While he said ability to report emergencies from anywhere without having to seek out a conventional telephone is beneficial, multiple calls about the same incident "exceeds current staffing capabilities" and results in delay in answering some of the calls.

A goal of the initiative is to have the ability to answer 90% of the calls that come in in 10 seconds -- three rings -- or less. At present, about three-fourths of the calls meet that standard, he said.

Last calendar year the call center handled 411,900 calls on the 9-1-1 emergency line and 95,027 from the non-emergency line. The same operators respond to both lines, giving priority to the 9-1-1 one.

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