painful budget proposal
somber county executive presented a share-the-pain budget
proposal for the coming fiscal year and asked for support for a
spending plan which he said preserves essential services while
attempting to deal with the current crisis in the national and
local economies, coming on top of previously recognized
'structural' shortcomings inherent in a financing system almost
totally dependent upon the vagaries of the real estate market.
were no surprises in Christopher Coons's half hour address,
delivered on Mar. 17 before a rapt and absolutely silent standing-room-only
crowd which included a large contingent of county employees
wearing green union teeshirts and sporting slogan buttons
reading "Is it raining?". That was a reference to the
possibility of tapping the so-called 'rainy-day' emergency
reserve fund to avoid lay-offs or unpaid furloughs.
specifically rejected that idea as well as exhausting what is
left of budget reserves, saying those moves would only postpone the
inevitable. "We would arrive at next year marked as an
irresponsible government that faced a real challenge and
blinked," he said. The proposed budget does use $10.5 million of
the $40.9 million budget reserve estimated at last count to be
available when this fiscal year ends on June 30.
expected, Coons proposed a 25% property tax increase. That would
bring the rate on which the tax bill due Sept. 30 is calculated
to 70.18¢ for each $100 of assessed value in unincorporated
areas of the county. The rate is scaled down in incorporated
municipalities, such as Wilmington, Newark and Middletown, to
reflect the value of services supported by their respective
property taxes. The current rate in unincorporated areas is
said the increase, if enacted by County Council, would require the
owner of a property assessed at the average amount across the
county to pay approximately $100 more next year.
also proposed an unspecified increase in the fee for sanitary
sewer service which he said would amount, on average, to $24.
The sewer fee, which is not treated as a tax, is based on water
the most controversial element in Coons's proposal is what
appears to be a tentative request to cut "between 75 and 100
currently filled positions across all departments of our
government, including public safety."
Given the fact that the
administration and unions representing about eight of every 10
county workers have not reached an agreement on a way to reduce
labor costs, Coons said he was "left with no choice" but to go
however, that it has not yet been determined where and how
lay-offs would be made and left the door open, saying, "I will
gladly accept a proposal from our union locals that can be
reasonably and fairly implemented across our workforce and
achieves sustainable, concrete savings that equals $4.8
million." Coons previously proposed and the unions evidently
rejected that workers take 24 unpaid 'holidays', which would be
equivalent to about a 10% pay cut.
respect and value our county employees and the services they
provide, but in a time when employee costs continue to rise
significantly faster than our revenues, I have a responsibility
to the half-million residents of this county to bring those
costs down before I ask them to contribute to solving this
county's fiscal problems," Coons said.
proposed general fund operating budget totals $165 million,
which would be down about 6% from the $175.1 million anticipated
to be spent this year. The proposed sewer fund budget is $64.8
million, up 0.6% from a projected $64.4 million this year.
spending and reserve estimates are as of Jan. 31 -- the most
recent accounting made public by the county finance department.
bottom lines of both the general fund and sewer fund budgets
approved by County Council last May, Coons said the combined
budgets he is requesting for the coming year represent "the largest percentage
budget decrease in county history." If required increases in
debt service and employee benefits were not included in the
comparison, the general fund budget would be down by 10%, he
said. The budgets which Council approved have since been
increased by supplemental appropriations and other legislation.
scheduled a series of Monday afternoon budget hearings,
beginning Mar. 23 and continuing through May 11. It has until
the end of May to approve a budget -- which must be balanced --
and set a tax rate.
In the past,
Council has consistently approved budgets as submitted by the
executive without substantive change. This year, however, it is
expected that the administration could seeks some changes,
primarily related to an alternative to laying off workers.
said in his address that, during the recently completed series
of town meeting-style 'listening sessions', he concluded that
the majority of county residents value the services that county
government provides and appear willing to support "a balanced
approach" to financing them. "This is a tough environment, but
it also offers opportunities to re-examine our government and
reconsider what are our essential services and how we can
deliver them more efficiently," he said.
who oppose a tax increase need to present a realistic
alternative path because we cannot fill our $48 million deficit
though cuts alone," he said. "If this is a community that is
indeed so financially stressed that it cannot afford $8 a month
more to fund police, paramedics, libraries and other services we
have come to enjoy and depend on, then we have much harder
for residents who particularly value specific programs and
services which are being reduced or eliminated as nonessential
to step forward as volunteers and to help finance them. "Without
exceptional and new private support, we will have to move
forward with the cuts proposed in this budget that scales back
the services we provide," he said.
said the 21 volunteer fire companies have agreed to an 8%
reduction in the amount of county support they receive and that
grants to a variety of community and human-services
organizations also will be cut.
be eliminated or postponed, he said, are 40 previously
authorized capital projects involving about $75 million in
capital spending. "Keeping our capital budget from growing is
the only way to take control of our debt-service costs," he
other hand, he said, a strong effort will be made to foster
economic development. He said there have been several visits
recently "in search of employers who might relocate here or
invest in the redevelopment and growth of major [land] parcels."
He added that 'a specific and substantive plan for future
economic growth" is being developed in conjunction with the
state development office and the state and county chambers of
cautioned that dealing with the county's fiscal situation will
not be a one-year proposition. "Over the next five years we face
a projected $200 million shortfall, which can only be addressed
by a blend of operating more efficiently, significantly reducing
costs and raising revenue," he said.
address was received with polite applause. Those seated in the
rows reserved for department heads and other county officials
stood while clapping, but only a few in the rest of the Council
chamber joined in the symbolic ovation. Before departing, Coons
made it a point to shake hands with each Council member.
Noticeably absent from the talk were any light or humorous
comments which usually are part of Coons's public speaking
that he had prayed while attending a St. Patrick's Day Mass
earlier in the day and asked listeners in the chamber and the
radio audience "to take time tonight [to] be thoughtful or
prayerful [and] to hold in your hearts the spirit of community
and of bearing one another's burdens."