New Castle County Council approved County Executive Paul Clark's spending plan worth a combined $279 million, including the operating, sewer and capital budgets, at its meeting Tuesday night in the City/County Building.

New Castle County Council approved County Executive Paul Clark's spending plan worth a combined $279 million after a contentious debate about salaries and debt service at its meeting Tuesday night in the City/County Building.

The council voted 12-1 to approve the $241.9 million operating budget that increases spending 1.44 percent compared to FY 2011, and includes $69 million for the sewer fund, a 5 percent increase. The separate $46.3 million capital budget set for sewer, library and 911 Center improvements is an increase of roughly 17.8 percent.

Council President Tom Kovach (R-Brandywine Hundred) voted nay for both the operating and capital budgets due to concerns about what he sees as an increase in pay for county employees and capital construction debt.

Kovach drew the ire of several council members for making what they described as “11th hour” suggestions to the budget. 

Residents will see a modest, 3.9 percent sewer fee increase but no property tax increase in this budget.

The operating budget also includes Clark's plan for 2.5 percent in salary or benefits concessions from county employees. For the last two years, county employees saw their salaries rolled back 5 percent for an annual savings of $4 million. But current, collective bargaining agreements expire June 30.

The 2.5 percent in concessions would in essence come after the 5 percent rollbacks were restored, Clark said after the council meeting. But they are necessary to avoid layoffs.

“We’re in negotiations with all [the unions],” he said. “We believe we will have some concessions. This is a partnership. Employees are very important to us but we need them to work with us to ensure this government is sustainable.”

Kovach reiterated his criticism for the county’s debt service for sewer work, which is scheduled to be $15.7 million for FY 2012. That amount is 2 percentage points above the 20 percent limit of the total operating budget set by council for sewer debt service, Kovach said.

Violating its own rules could jeopardize the county’s prestigious AAA Bond rating, he said.

The county had to go slightly above the 20 percent limit on sewer debt service because of a mandate by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the DNREC to improve its sewer system, Clark said. Much of that work is centered on Brandywine Hundred’s aging infrastructure that sustained years of neglect.

“For the last six years, we’ve put a fair amount of money into it," Clark said. "We have a great bond rating. We’re getting great offers and bids from our contractors. And every time we fix a sewer, we’re putting people in the region – mostly from Delaware – to work.”

As for the operating budget, Kovach said the “5 percent, across the board salary increase” for county employees will not benefit the county in the near future.

But the rollbacks are not arbitrary; they have to occur as part of the union contracts, Acting Chief Financial Officer Edward Milowicki said when called forth to the podium. Nearly 90 percent of the county workforce is unionized, he said.

Councilman George Smiley (D-New Castle) suggested Kovach had a thirst for black ink in making criticisms aimed at making "headlines."

“It’s not a 5 percent raise,” Smiley said. “Mr. President, all of us in the chamber gave that 5 percent to help balance the budget. Have you given back 5 percent to help balance the budget? Because if you have, you can question it. If you haven’t, I don’t think you should."

But Kovach said the rollback does amount to a 5 percent raise for new county employees.

Smiley then criticized Kovach for “not having respect for county employees,” who he believes will step up to help close the budget gap.

Kovach cautioned Smiley to stick to the council rules of not making personal characterizations of other council members.

But the criticisms – albeit more civil than the discourse between Kovach and Smiley – continued.

Councilman Timothy Sheldon (D-Pike Creek) recalled how he once voted against the budget as a new councilman without offering real solutions or numbers. He called a vote against the budget Monday night disingenuous.

There are 12 members of council that understand that a budget has to get passed, Councilman William Bell (D-Middletown) added.

Kovach could find no support even with a fellow Republican, namely Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick (R-Hockessin), who echoed the sentiments of Councilman Jea Street (D-Wilmington). Where were Kovach’s amendments to the budget, she asked.

Kovach stood his ground after the meeting, calling it his “duty to advocate for the people” after speaking to civic groups and holding a town hall meeting on ideas for the budget.

“I would rather have money in the budget for giving raises and bonuses for innovation rather than being squeezed in the budget process every year because the ratio of benefits to salary is 50 percent," he said. "In the private sector, it’s 30 percent.”

But the county budget includes $2.1 million in savings achieved by cutting or unfunding 76 positions, Clark said. That brings the county’s total headcount to the lowest levels in a decade – 1,564 employees.