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5/18/2013
COUNTY GOVERNMENT Budget overspending alleged; NCCo Council proposes changes to Gordonís plan

Gordon said he tried to set up informal budget meetings with small groups of the 13-member council a month ago, but they were canceled after Councilman Bob Weiner objected, contending they violated the state Freedom of Information Act.


COUNTY GOVERNMENT Budget overspending alleged; NCCo Council proposes changes to Gordon’s plan


By Adam Taylor  The News Journal 5/18/13


NCCo Executive Tom Gordon’s proposed $169.1 million general fund budget calls for 19 new employees and to fill 28 of the county’s 132 vacant positions.

When it comes to the government’s finances, all New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon wants is the chance to repeat what he did when he was in charge from 1997-2004.

It also is precisely what some members of the County Council are trying to prevent. The council has offered amendments to Gordon’s proposed general fund and capital budgets and proposed a new sewer budget of its own.

NCCo Executive Tom Gordon’s proposed $169.1 million general fund budget calls for 19 new employees and to fill 28 of the county’s 132 vacant positions.

The council’s amendments would eliminate the new employees and fill only four of the vacant positions. That alone would save nearly $2.6 million in spending proposed by the administration.

“This is what we encountered in 2004, working off unrealistic spending without the necessary funding,” the council’s Finance Cochairman George Smiley said. “The administration is trying to go back to the old days.” Gordon said Smiley and other council members are using alleged fiscal responsibility as camouflage for political control.

“This is really about George Smiley wanting control of the budget,” Gordon said. “All I want is the chance to make county government work without having to raise taxes and fees on the people first.”

Gordon’s vision of his first tenure as the county’s chief financial steward is one of turning a budget shortfall of about $100 million into a surplus of $185 million in eight years without raising property taxes. Smiley sees Gordon’s past record as one of ex-cessive spending that had to be repaired with large tax hikes and spending cuts after he left office. Other proposed cuts by the council working group – which includes John Cartier, Janet Kilpatrick, Penrose Hollins and Lisa Diller – include eliminating $225,000 Gordon wants to give to the Wilmington Fire Department; eliminating a $180,000 line item for “discretionary fire spending”; and cutting $100,000 in proposed spending for recreational programs such as Sleeping Under the Stars, a popular family camping event in county parks. In all, the proposed cuts by the council group would total nearly $3.1 million, which would reduce the necessary transfer from reserve accounts to balance the budget to $1.2 million.

Not all council members like the ideas. Jea Street said eliminating the donation to the Wilmington Fire Department to help with its money troubles “sends an inappropriate, symbolic and dangerous message that we’re anti-city,” Street said. Gordon wants to transfer $2.2 million from sewer reserve accounts to balance the proposed $72.7 million sewer budget to avoid having to increase fees to customers. The council is proposing to raise rates by 3.9 percent instead of dipping into the reserves. The increase would cost the average customer $11 more a year, Smiley said. The council wants to trim the $35.6 million capital budget by $3.9 million. The cuts are $2.5 million of the $3 million Gordon wants to acquire land for preservation of farmland and open space; the entire $1 million he wants to enhance security systems in county buildings; and $400,000 he wants to replenish the capital contingency fund the county executive controls for emergency projects.

Cartier noted that money remains for all three efforts despite the cuts. County Deputy Chief Administrative Officer James McDonald said the money should be borrowed now while interest rates are low.

“Poor communications by this administration with council compared to past administrations is just a matter of fact,” said Hollins, who has served on the council for more 22 years.

Gordon said he tried to set up informal budget meetings with small groups of the 13-member council a month ago, but they were canceled after Councilman Bob Weiner objected, contending they violated the state Freedom of Information Act.

Gordon said those meetings might still happen before the council votes on the spending plans on May 28. He has sought an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office as to whether they are legal and is waiting for a ruling.

“That’s really restricted me from communicating with them,” Gordon said. “It’s ironic that I used to be accused of controlling the council. Now I’m criticized for not saying enough to them.”

Either way, Gordon said he doesn’t want a suburban version of the budget wars that have taken place in Wilmington this month, during which Mayor Dennis P. Williams has said he will veto the City Council’s amended budget, calling it unconstitutional.

“I won’t veto anything,” Gordon said. “But if the small group meetings don’t happen, I will call to lobby individual council members to vote against the amendments.”

Gordon said many of the items he’s proposing are not unprecedented. For example, the county gave the Wilmington Fire Department $418,000 in 2006. And transfers from reserves have been made in the past to balance general fund budgets: $10.6 million in 2006, $10.2 million in 2007 and $17.3 million in 2009. “Council never questioned any of that,” Gordon said. “That shows that what’s happening now is clearly political.” Hollins said he’s simply trying to protect the taxpayers. “The county’s budget should reflect the realities of the economy of today,” he said. “To me, adding to the workforce, borrowing too much and tapping into the reserves is irresponsible.” 



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