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5/26/2009
Councilman Weiner votes against 25% tax increase - News Journal

"It's very simple," Weiner said when asked why he did not vote consistently on both ordinances. "County government did a good job cutting our budgetary needs and downsizing government. What we did not do a good job of is how to finance it."

Weiner said he has long advocated solutions such as privatizing some county functions or merging duplicated services with the state or cities.

25% NCCo property tax hike OK'd

Council passes $228 million budget for 2010, a reduction of $29 million

BY ANGIE BASIOUNY • THE NEWS JOURNAL • MAY 27, 2009

WILMINGTON -- New Castle County property taxes  will increase 25 percent in the coming fiscal year, under a budget approved Tuesday by County Council.

The tax increase will raise an additional $21 million for the county and raise the average tax bill for a house with a market value of about $200,000 by $100, to about $501.

The $228 million budget for the year that begins July 1 reduces spending by $29 million from the current year and stands as the biggest budget reduction in county history. The cuts include the elimination of nine paramedic positions.

Still, it's not enough to plug the county's structural budget deficit -- a yearly problem of taking in less revenue than is needed to cover all of that year's spending. The budget gap is expected to grow to more than $200 million in the next five years.

"I hope the economy turns around," Councilman George Smiley said. "Any cut we're going to have to make in 2011, we're going to severely, adversely affect services for our residents, because there is nothing left."

The council members voted 10-3 to approve the budget without discussion in a meeting that lasted less than 20 minutes. The vote on the separate tax rate  resolution was a bit closer, with an 8-5 majority backing the property tax increase.

With the exception of a civic leader or two, no residents attended the evening meeting.

But council members weren't so reticent during a committee meeting earlier in the day, with opponents harshly criticizing the tax hike for the burden it will place on homeowners struggling to stay afloat during a recession.

Councilmen Jea P. Street and William Tansey directed some of that criticism at themselves and fellow council members, who are charged with reviewing and revising the budget proposed by County Executive Chris Coons.

In the three months since Coons laid out his plan, council has offered no substantive changes. Their amendments shaved about $11,000 from the budget.

"It's all rhetoric," Tansey said. "We know we have a structural problem. All we did was [go after] low-hanging fruit. We taxed the taxpayer to cover what we're spending."

Street described the weekly budget hearings more as "information sessions" than a real attempt to find more savings.

"I don't see where we were actually scrutinizing the budget," he said.

Street, along with Councilmen Bill Powers, Timothy Sheldon, David Tackett and Robert Weiner, voted no on the ordinance to set the tax rate. Powers and Weiner voted to approve the overall budget.

"It's very simple," Weiner said when asked why he did not vote consistently on both ordinances. "County government did a good job cutting our budgetary needs and downsizing government. What we did not do a good job of is how to finance it."

Weiner said he has long advocated solutions such as privatizing some county functions or merging duplicated services with the state or cities. But he drafted no ordinances putting those ideas to a vote.

Neither did Tackett or Sheldon, who recently wrote his ideas in an editorial published by The News Journal. Sheldon's piece suggested the county consider fees for the library or parks, and privatize the Police Athletic League.

He said he didn't put forward any budget amendments because he didn't feel he had enough support. He vowed to introduce legislation by September or October.

"It's got to be taken seriously next year," he said.

Coons thanked council members who supported the budget -- and offered tough words for those who voted no without offering alternatives.

"They are not serving their constituents or their community," Coons said. "And they are not moving this county forward."

Though the administration chopped millions from the budget, the savings are offset by a $16 million rise in healthcare and pension costs. The county also will use about $6.6 million from its reserve cash to cover the deficit.

With salaries, wages and benefits accounting for three-fourths of county spending, Coons went after concessions from the work force and got them. A majority of the nearly 1,500 employees have agreed to a 5 percent salary rollback that will save the county more than $3 million in the coming year.

Two unions -- police and paramedics -- did not agree to the rollbacks. Nine paramedics-in-training have been laid off as a result.

The county is still negotiating with police in talks both sides have characterized as "productive." The details have not been disclosed because the talks are part of the closed-door collective-bargaining process.

"We thought there was a tentative agreement we could bring forward today," county Chief Administrative Officer Tracy Surles said "We are close."

The approved budget erases $1.2 million from the police force, so the savings will come through wage concessions or layoffs, Surles said. The county has not said how many officers might be laid off.

Coons also whacked the capital budget by $75 million, a move that would eliminate or delay about 40 projects. Among them are improvements to the soccer fields at Banning Park, the parking lot at Delcastle Park, Glasgow Park and a new police shooting range.

Sewer bills will rise next year, too. Council voted unanimously Tuesday to increase the sewer rate by 10 percent, which will raise the average residential sewer bill from $240 to $264. This will bring in an extra $5 million.

County officials said the change is necessary to pay for maintenance that will help the aging system meet newer federal wastewater guidelines set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

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