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February 5,  2009

Unions being asked to help
county meet fiscal problem

Unions which represent a majority of county government employees are being asked to forego pay raises and agree to furloughs and other cost-cutting measures in contracts now being negotiated.

"Everybody needs to be making a contribution to solving this [financial] problem," County Executive Christopher Coons said.

In keeping with usual policy by public entities of holding information about labor relations close to the vest, Coons did not go into detail about what the county administration has put on the table in continuing talks with the unions except to say that an agreement reached last April with the local representing park- and sewer-maintenance workers is being advanced as a model.

At a well-attended town meeting-style 'listening session' for residents of western Brandywine Hundred and eastern Christiana Hundred, County Council president Paul Clark said the county administration is talking with volunteer fire companies how much will be provided in the way of financial support next year. He indicated it will be less than the $3.9 million that 19 companies are getting this year.

And Lynne Howard, acting chief administrative officer, revealed that the administration "has started consultation" with state and city of Wilmington officials about ways that might be used to cut down on "duplication of services." She said that was in response to Governor Jack Markell's desire to reduce or eliminate overlapping government functions.

Asked at the meeting on Feb. 4 for a show of hands to indicate which of three alternatives for dealing with the county's expected budget shortfall in the coming fiscal year they preferred, 62 attenders said they would accept a hefty property-tax increase to avoid having to significantly cut back county services, 35 wanted any tax increase to be balanced with service cuts and five opted for no higher taxes regardless of what effect that has on services. About 125 members of the general public turned out for the session.

Oral comments from those at the meeting ranged from Kate du Pont Phillips saying she was "willing to pay a 50% increase  in property tax to maintain [present] services" to Ann Rave who said, "I do not want my taxes or any other taxes raised. Our government[s] have to do what families do in hard times."

One man, who did not identify himself, said it was not surprising that people who attend such meetings would be supportive of a tax increase. "The many who it would really hurt aren't here tonight," he said. A woman said the meeting had been "stacked with people who want to pay more tax."

With the majority of attenders apparently accepting the premise that county government spending "is down to the bare bones," Clark told the audience that "all the Council [members] have to hear from you to feel comfortable with [their] vote."

Councilman Bob Weiner, in whose district the meeting was held, said that he "has never voted to raise taxes," but indicated that he may be leaning in the opposite direction. "It's a choice now [of] whether we continue to deliver parks and libraries and police," he said. Weiner is one of two Republicans on the 13-member Council, but, in practice, few if any issues which come before Council evoke partisan response.

Outcome of the labor negotiations is critical because personnel costs account for about three-quarters of the county budget. Last spring the maintenance workers' union, which had been without a contract since April, 2007,  agreed to a retroactive 3.1% cost-of-living increase for the then-current fiscal year; a one-time payment of $250 this fiscal year; no increase next year; and a 1% cost-of-living increase in fiscal 2011.

The other five unions, with which talks are now under way, have been working without a contract since last Apr. 1. County spokesman C.R. McLeod told Delaforum that it is most  likely their new contracts would cover the current year and the coming two years. He would not comment on whether they might include any retroactive provisions.

With personnel costs such a major factor in county operations, Coons said that volunteers have begun to an will increasingly have to play a role in determining which optional services will be provided. That is especially so with regard to libraries and parks where so-called 'friends' groups can be instrumental in obtaining financial support and staffing some activities.

"We have actually expanded services in a few places where volunteers have made it possible for us to do so. We will continue [that] where there are volunteers," he said.

He did not make any response when Chris Hutchinson, president of the Friends of Rockwood Park, said his organization believes that the mansion in the park "is the next [attraction] to go."

Coons did take issue with a recent newspaper article critical of the way volunteer fire company manage their finances. "I am impressed by people who get up at two in the morning, get in a truck, [and] jump on a fire engine to help people they don't know," he said. "Without a volunteer service that protection would be provided by a full-time paid fire service. You [now] benefit enormously." He said the volunteer companies maintaining sufficient funds to assure continued operation and acquire equipment is essential.

Attender Patty Miller, of the Nemours Foundation, said county-sponsored recreation programs are necessary because they make it possible for "families and children to be physically active" and combat obesity. Brett Saddler urged that the administration and Council "do what they need to do to keep our police and code enforcement fully funded."

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