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10/29/2008
Bad financial news forces NCCo to shelve public safety plan - Community News

Bad financial news forces NCCo to shelve public safety plan
By Jesse Chadderdon
Community News
Posted Oct 29, 2008 @ 02:08 AM
Last update Oct 29, 2008 @ 03:23 PM
________________________________________
Wilmington, Del. —

With new projections that it’s $11 million in the hole this fiscal year, New Castle County officials are putting a hold on plans to expand its police force and add 911 operators over the next five years.

The County Council was to vote on two pieces of legislation Tuesday that would have added 22 officers and seven civilians to the police department, and 10 new emergency communications employees this year.

But after the dire financial news was presented to council by Chief Financial Officer Ed Milowicki Tuesday afternoon, Councilman Bill Bell (D-Middletown), a co-chair of the Public Safety Committee, announced he was withdrawing the legislation.

“We know the need is there, but we also understand the timing of the two proposals is not right,” he told the Council Finance Committee.

Chief Administrative Officer Jeff Bullock said the proposals, which had the backing of the administration, will now be part of County Executive Chris Coons recommended budget for next year.

The five-year-plan would have required a 4 percent property tax increase alone, but with the county’s growing fiscal problems, it appears increasingly likely that more increases will be necessary just to cut into the government’s operating deficit.

The county went into this fiscal year, which began July 1, expecting to spend $17 million in cash reserves to make up for its gap between revenues and expenditures. Now, with a faltering housing market that has real estate transfer tax projections down $9 million – more than 25 percent – Milowicki estimates the county will need to use $27 million in reserves.

And it’s not even Thanksgiving yet. Things could still get even worse, officials warned. It’s so bad, Bullock said the county would have to seriously consider layoffs in two years if new revenue doesn’t come in.

In the meantime, Bullock said the county had to act where it could, and said cuts to overtime and even shortening library hours were on the table as cost-cutting measures.

“If you lose $11 million in four months, you can’t afford to do nothing,” he said. “We’re no longer in a situation where we can talk theoretically about the reserves running out. That day is fast approaching.”

Two tax increases totaling 23 percent in 2006 and 2007 – the first increases in more than a decade – weren’t enough to close the county’s structural deficit. Officials estimate taxes should have been raised 44 percent since 1996 just to keep up with inflation and the rise in the region’s consumer price index.

As Council President Paul Clark put it: “We’re trying to pay salaries, buy gas and build things with dollars that are quite a bit aged.”

Unfortunately though, crime doesn’t stop for recessions – in fact, its likely to increase. And so, as difficult as it is for the county to fund the expansion of its public safety departments, it remains necessary, according to Councilman Jea Street (D-Wilmington South).
Street, who has long called for adding officers to the departments authorized force of 364, said he believes a county of this size needs a police force of 500 strong.

“As our economy declines, crime is going to significantly increase and if we want to address it and we want our police to put out those fires, we’re going to have to give them the resources to do it,” he said.

Police Chief Col. Rick Gregory said the staffing plan would greatly increase the department’s ability to deal with minor crimes like thefts and burglaries – the kind of crimes likely to increase as the economy sours. Overall, he estimates the plan, once fully implemented, could cut crime in the county by 10 percent.

Council members Stephanie McClellan (D-Newark) and Robert Weiner (R-Chatham), who both hosted public meetings Monday on the public safety plan, said even taxpayers who support the county hiring more officers were concerned about the giving their blessing for the necessary funding now when other demands might be made on them next spring.

“People supported this fully and the 4 percent tax increase for it, but were concerned it was going to be part of a larger tax increase,” McClellan said. “I think we’re going to have to do this sooner or later and hope during this budget cycle this plan does comes back before us.”

Both Gregory and Emergency Communications Chief Dave Roberts said they understand the financial realities facing the county but remain hopeful that their departments’ needs would be addressed during the next budget cycle.

In the meantime, they said they’d go back to their departments and work on ways to maximize the resources they already have.

For Gregory, that means continued deployment of a Special Operations unit to high crime areas to supplement regular patrols and investigations.

For Roberts, it means creating a career ladder within his department that gives employees a greater opportunity for advancement – a move he hopes will help keep staffing levels up

 

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