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7/17/2006
NCC Adopts Councilman Weiner's Call To Study County Employees Saleries After Initial Rejection

NCCo sets up deficit task force
County's $80 million reserve expected to run out by 2009

By ANGIE BASIOUNY
The News Journal

Making good on a promise to find ways to rein in spending and boost revenue, New Castle County officials are putting together a task force to tackle the county's budget deficit.

"Three years from now, we will have a $40 million problem," county Chief Financial Officer Michael Strine said. "This task force as a whole would be about balancing priorities, cutting costs and bringing revenue in line with spending."

The deficit is projected to reach $40 million by 2009 when the county's $80 million cash reserves will be expended.

To help close the growing gap between revenue and expenses, County Executive Chris Coons cut $4 million from the budget this year and raised property taxes by 5 percent, generating an extra $3.2 million.

But officials say those changes are not enough. That's why task force leaders want everything on the table, said Councilwoman Karen Venezky, who chairs the council Finance Committee.

She and Strine will head the nine-member task force. The other members will come from the public. Four will be chosen by the administration and the remaining three will be chosen by council.

None of those members has been selected.

"What this is about is our future," Venezky said. "I think the environment we are facing now, with increased unfunded mandates looming at us, it is important to do this now."

One of those mandates could become dog control.

State officials said last month they likely will ask counties to begin paying part of the costs starting July 1, 2007. In three years, the county could be on its own to figure out how to provide and pay for the service, which now is handled by the Kent County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Some items the task force will examine are:

The use and realignment of county assets such as parks. This includes looking at whether to sell or lease facilities such as Rockwood Park or Carousel Park.

Whether to conduct a real estate reassessment, which has not been done since 1983. Assessed value is used to calculate the annual property tax for each residential, commercial and industrial parcel in the county

The county's revenue portfolio and fees for services compared with other jurisdictions.

Plans for land development, including the building of a sewer system in the southern end of the county.

Whether to change the way workers are compensated.

Salaries and benefits account for more than two-thirds of the county's $230 million operating budget.

Virtually all of the county's 1,657 employees are covered by union contracts that prevent layoffs while offering 3 percent annual raises. In addition, county law sets up pay grades that carry 5 percent step increases for the first 10 years for employees who pass their performance evaluations.

Councilman Robert Weiner tried in late May to sponsor legislation urging a review of worker pay and change a portion of the county code that limits property tax increases to 5 percent a year.

He withdrew the measures after receiving no support from the other 12 council members.

"When this [task force] idea was first generated, I was opposed to it," Weiner said. "I find myself 180 degrees now."

Council President Paul Clark said he hopes to have members chosen and the first task force meeting by August.

The group is required to submit recommendations to Coons and the council by Dec. 30, so officials can have the ideas in hand as the next budget cycle begins.

Contact Angie Basiouny at 324-2796 or abasiouny@delawareonline.com.

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