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5/27/2008
County approves budget; Weiner: We still have work to do to get our financial house in order

Councilman Robert Weiner (R-Chatham) said the county still had work to do to get its financial house in order. He said New Castle County needed to continue to lobby the General Assembly to sign off on a new county revenue source.

“I’m still personally concerned about a lack of diversity in our revenue stream,” he said. “We’re still too dependent on property taxes and real estate transfer tax – two revenue streams that are subject to economic downturns. Until that changes, we have no choice but to raise taxes or draw down our cash reserves if we’re to continue delivering services.”

 

New Castle County has new spending plan in place
Election year budget has no tax increases

By Jesse Chadderdon
Community News
May 27, 2008 @ 11:02 PM

Wilmington, Del. —
New Castle County Council unanimously approved a budget for fiscal year 2009 that relies heavily on cash reserves to bridge the county’s ongoing gap between revenues and expenditures.

With County Executive Chris Coons and seven of 13 council members facing re-election this Fall, lawmakers chose to allocate roughly one-third of its remaining cash reserves – $22.2 million – rather than raising taxes for a third consecutive year.

The new fiscal year begins July 1.

The $240.3 million budget includes $11.7 million in new spending. More than $2 million is earmarked to offset rising energy costs, while $4.9 million will be used to pay interest on bonds issued for already completed capital projects. The other $4 million will be used to fund a new police academy and pay overtime for police and paramedics.

Twenty-nine positions throughout county government will either be deleted or not funded, bringing the county’s workforce to 1,614 employees, the smallest since 2003. Eligible employees will still receive 5 percent merit increases in each of their first 10 years with the county, but cost of living increases – traditionally 3.1 percent annually – will be scaled back significantly.

Negotiations with several county unions are ongoing, but the deal reached between the administration and park and sewer workers last month calls for a $250 stipend paid to each employee next April in place of any cost of living increase.

Joe Lavelle, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said the terms of his union’s contract talks prohibited him from speaking about the impact of the budget on county police.

Coons, who signed the budget immediately following Tuesday’s meeting, called the spending plan “lean.” He said making new cuts became increasingly difficult in this, his fourth year in office, when significant changes were incorporated in previous budgets.

“Over the last three years we’ve made a series of difficult choices that includes cutting our head count and raising sewer fees, permit fees and property taxes,” he said. “This was the fourth year of a four year process, and the difficult part this year has been identifying new revenue and the talks with our unions.”

Though not currently incorporated into the budget, residents could soon see their sewer fees rise an average of $10 next year as the county considers plans to accelerate maintenance to the sewer system in response to mandates from state and federal environmental regulators.

Coons said he would unveil a multi-year plan to council in July that would create countywide strategies for dealing with odor mitigation and the reduction of household grease and oils in the system. He said the plan would cost $2.2 million in the first year, which would require a 4.4 percent increase in current sewer charges.

Council President Paul Clark said the budget proposal received the unanimous blessing of council because it was vetted over several months by members. He acknowledged that raising taxes would have been difficult in an election year, but said it was not the foremost reason for holding the line.

“The reason it went so smoothly is because of the hours we’ve put in during the budget hearings as well as throughout the year when we look at financial issues,” he said. “We didn’t raise taxes because we made a promise to the citizens that we’d try to balance things out over the years, and this year, when people might be facing $5 for a gallon of gas, we thought it was a good year not to raise taxes, election year or not.”

Councilman Robert Weiner (R-Chatham) said the county still had work to do to get its financial house in order. He said New Castle County needed to continue to lobby the General Assembly to sign off on a new county revenue source.

“I’m still personally concerned about a lack of diversity in our revenue stream,” he said. “We’re still too dependent on property taxes and real estate transfer tax – two revenue streams that are subject to economic downturns. Until that changes, we have no choice but to raise taxes or draw down our cash reserves if we’re to continue delivering services.”

Marion Stewart, a longtime member of the Civic League for New Castle County, said she and other civic leaders were on board with the spending plan

“I didn’t see anything to object to in this budget,” she said. “The Civic League did study it extensively and decided we didn’t really have anything to say about it or anything we wanted to see changed.”

In another 12-0 vote, the council approved a $42.6 million capital budget. The capital program deleted $8.6 million in projects and authorized no additional ones.

Councilman William Tansey (R-Greenville) was out of the country on vacation and did not vote.

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