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Coons submits an austere, painful budget proposal -

A somber county executive presented a share-the-pain budget proposal for the coming fiscal year and asked for support for a spending plan which he said preserves essential services while attempting to deal with the current crisis in the national and local economies, coming on top of previously recognized 'structural' shortcomings inherent in a financing system almost totally dependent upon the vagaries of the real estate market.

There were no surprises in Christopher Coons's half hour address, delivered on Mar. 17 before a rapt and absolutely silent standing-room-only crowd which included a large contingent of county employees wearing green union teeshirts and sporting slogan buttons reading "Is it raining?". That was a reference to the possibility of tapping the so-called 'rainy-day' emergency reserve fund to avoid lay-offs or unpaid furloughs.

Coons specifically rejected that idea as well as exhausting what is left of budget reserves, saying those moves would only postpone the inevitable. "We would arrive at next year marked as an irresponsible government that faced a real challenge and blinked," he said. The proposed budget does use $10.5 million of the $40.9 million budget reserve estimated at last count to be available when this fiscal year ends on June 30.

As expected, Coons proposed a 25% property tax increase. That would bring the rate on which the tax bill due Sept. 30 is calculated to 70.18¢ for each $100 of assessed value in unincorporated areas of the county. The rate is scaled down in incorporated municipalities, such as Wilmington, Newark and Middletown, to reflect the value of services supported by their respective property taxes. The current rate in unincorporated areas is 56.14¢.

Coons said the increase, if enacted by County Council, would require the owner of a property assessed at the average amount across the county to pay approximately $100 more next year.

Coons also proposed an unspecified increase in the fee for sanitary sewer service which he said would amount, on average, to $24. The sewer fee, which is not treated as a tax, is based on water consumption.

Clearly the most controversial element in Coons's proposal is what appears to be a tentative request to cut "between 75 and 100 currently filled positions across all departments of our government, including public safety."

Given the fact that the administration and unions representing about eight of every 10 county workers have not reached an agreement on a way to reduce labor costs, Coons said he was "left with no choice" but to go for lay-offs.

He added, however, that it has not yet been determined where and how lay-offs would be made and left the door open, saying, "I will gladly accept a proposal from our union locals that can be reasonably and fairly implemented across our workforce and achieves sustainable, concrete savings that equals $4.8 million." Coons previously proposed and the unions evidently rejected that workers take 24 unpaid 'holidays', which would be equivalent to about a 10% pay cut.

"I respect and value our county employees and the services they provide, but in a time when employee costs continue to rise significantly faster than our revenues, I have a responsibility to the half-million residents of this county to bring those costs down before I ask them to contribute to solving this county's fiscal problems," Coons said.

The proposed general fund operating budget totals $165 million, which would be down about 6% from the $175.1 million anticipated to be spent this year. The proposed sewer fund budget is $64.8 million, up 0.6% from a projected  $64.4 million this year.

The spending and reserve estimates are as of Jan. 31 -- the most recent accounting made public by the county finance department.

Combining the bottom lines of both the general fund and sewer fund budgets approved by County Council last May, Coons said the combined budgets he is requesting for the coming year represent "the largest percentage budget decrease in county history." If required increases in debt service and employee benefits were not included in the comparison, the general fund budget would be down by 10%, he said. The budgets which Council approved have since been increased by supplemental appropriations and other legislation.

Council has scheduled a series of Monday afternoon budget hearings, beginning Mar. 23 and continuing through May 11. It has until the end of May to approve a budget -- which must be balanced -- and set a tax rate.

In the past, Council has consistently approved budgets as submitted by the executive without substantive change. This year, however, it is expected that the administration could seeks some changes, primarily related to an alternative to laying off workers.

Coons said in his address that, during the recently completed series of town meeting-style 'listening sessions', he concluded that the majority of county residents value the services that county government provides and appear willing to support "a balanced approach" to financing them. "This is a tough environment, but it also offers opportunities to re-examine our government and reconsider what are our essential services and how we can deliver them more efficiently," he said.

"Those who oppose a tax increase need to present a realistic alternative path because we cannot fill our $48 million deficit though cuts alone," he said.
"If this is a community that is indeed so financially stressed that it cannot afford $8 a month more to fund police, paramedics, libraries and other services we have come to enjoy and depend on, then we have much harder choices ahead."

He called for residents who particularly value specific programs and services which are being reduced or eliminated as nonessential to step forward as volunteers and to help finance them. "Without exceptional and new private support, we will have to move forward with the cuts proposed in this budget that scales back the services we provide," he said.

Coons said the 21 volunteer fire companies have agreed to an 8% reduction in the amount of county support they receive and that grants to a variety of community and human-services organizations also will be cut.

Also to be eliminated or postponed, he said, are 40 previously authorized capital projects involving about $75 million in capital spending. "Keeping our capital budget from growing is the only way to take control of our debt-service costs," he said.

On the other hand, he said, a strong effort will be made to foster economic development. He said there have been several visits recently "in search of employers who might relocate here or invest in the redevelopment and growth of major [land] parcels." He added that 'a specific and substantive plan for future economic growth" is being developed in conjunction with the state development office and the state and county chambers of commerce.

Coons cautioned that dealing with the county's fiscal situation will not be a one-year proposition. "Over the next five years we face a projected $200 million shortfall, which can only be addressed by a blend of operating more efficiently, significantly reducing costs and raising revenue," he said.

His address was received with polite applause. Those seated in the rows reserved for department heads and other county officials stood while clapping, but only a few in the rest of the Council chamber joined in the symbolic ovation. Before departing, Coons made it a point to shake hands with each Council member.

Noticeably absent from the talk were any light or humorous comments which usually are part of Coons's public speaking style.

He noted that he had prayed while attending a St. Patrick's Day Mass earlier in the day and asked listeners in the chamber and the radio audience "to take time tonight [to] be thoughtful or prayerful [and] to hold in your hearts the spirit of community and of bearing one another's burdens."

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