county budget seeks
long-range structural change
Paul Clark warned that county government will be bankrupt by
2014 if it does not implement what he called "permanent changes
to the way we do business."
While presenting a
proposed $164 million operating budget to County Council Clark
said, "New Castle County is not broke; New Castle County has not
been mismanaged." But, he added, "we remain in a structural
deficit ... that exists because we continue to spend more than
we take in as costs continue to rise."
The problem is
"serious enough that [it] threatens the long-term health of this
government," he said. "I believe the budget I am recommending
tonight is the first brick in the foundation of change."
The $164 million
spending plan is down nine tenths of 1% from the $165.5 million
county government expects to spend in the current fiscal year,
which ends on June 30, according to acting chief financial
officer Ed Milowicki. Those figures have been adjusted to
include motor vehicle fleet expenses previously included in the
capital budget and exclude the cost of providing school crossing
guards, which is financed through a separate dedicated tax.
Clark stuck by his intention,
previously reported by Delaforum, to not seek an increase in the
70.06¢ property-tax rate. The rate -- scaled down for properties
in incorporated municipalities depending upon the extent to
which they use country-provided services -- is applied to each
$100 of assessed value.
Instead he proposed several ways
to cut costs, the most significant of which will require $2.4
million in concessions by the labor unions which represent the
majority of county employees.
That would be half of the 5% pay cuts or their equivalents that
most have taken during the previous two years. Contract talks
are scheduled to get under way soon.
"Whatever concessions we reach
with our unions, I, along with my appointed staff, will accept
the same reductions," he said. He did not specifically refer to
employees not represented by unions, but they are expected to be
included as well.
Without being specific, Clark
said he will "be offering incentives for employees to partner
with us to reduce costs." While doing so, he also hinted in
reverse English that he intends to accompany that proverbial
carrot with a proverbial stick by adding, "I hope we can do that
without any layoffs."
Clark drew the only round of
applause from the audience during his budget address on Mar. 22
when he praised the county workforce. "They do a terrific job,
but the realities that have hit the private sector workforce are
now here in the public sector," he said.
He also said 25 authorized but presently vacant positions will
be eliminated and that money for 51 which are not now filled but
will remain on the books will not be provided. The proposed
budget provides for 1,564 positions, down from a peak of 1,684
in fiscal 2005 and the lowest number since fiscal 2001.
In proposing a $69.1 million
budget to finance the county's sanitary sewer system, Clark said
he will seek a 3.9% increase in sewer fees. He called the
resultant increase in cost "nominal for the homeowner."
Moreover, he added, it can be offset by taking measures to
conserve water. The fee is pegged to the amount of water a
Also proposed was a $46 million
capital-spending budget, which adds no new projects but
continues "commitments previously made" such as constructing a
new branch library in Claymont and renovating the one in Bear
and providing body armor for county police officers.
Unlike in each
year during the past decade, the proposed fiscal 2012 budget
does not envision dipping into the budget reserve to cover what
otherwise would be an operating deficit. The reserve is expected
to stand at $44.3 million on June 30, down from $50 million a year
Clark described the proposed
budget as "based on reality, not hope."
"I do not see our economy coming
back quickly," he said. Nor, he added, does he expect financial
assistance from either the state of federal government. "There
will be no windfall of unexpected revenue," he said.
Looking to the future, clearly
the most significant change that Clark proposed was earmarking
revenue from the tax on real estate transactions to finance
economic development. "We must take action to grow our economy
through jobs," he said. "In the near future you will see me
bring a proposal to Council to do just that."
County Council will begin a department-by-department review of
the proposed budget with the first of a series of
open-to-the-public hearings on Mar. 28. If past practice is any
guide, the 13-member legislative body can be expected to enact
the budget without any substantive changes in late May, a little
over a month before the new fiscal year begins on July 1.
Meanwhile, Clark and members of
his administration will host a series of public meetings in
communities around the county.