New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon's budget address for the coming 2014 fiscal year morphed into a speech about improving government transparency and the relationship between the executive branch and legislative branch in the next four years.
Gordon mentioned important budgetary items like the fact that he proposed no tax increase for New Castle County residents in the $250.9 million 2014 fiscal year budget that included a spending increase of 3.24 percent.
"We can't afford a tax increase in this economy," Gordon said before New Castle County Council Tuesday night at the City/County Building. "Wall Street had eight days of the highest stock market numbers in the history of this country. But 45 percent of labor in this state is sitting on the sidelines; it's not being shared. The 1 percent is getting richer and the middle class is dying."
Gordon said he would aim to get more local vendors contracts with New Castle County, and he spoke of his plan to hire 19 additional county employees mostly in the construction and maintenance sector to repair deteriorating buildings and facilities. He said maintaining the county's buildings and parks were crucial to New Castle's quality of life and ability to attract businesses to upstate Delaware.
"The maintenance on buildings has been put off for about eight years and they're decaying," Gordon said.
But Gordon spent much of his 35-minute budget address extending an invitation to New County Council members to visit executive departments anytime they wanted. In an unprecedented move, he even offered to give them access cards to drop into executive office branches without his supervision or an appointment in an effort to "become friends rather than adversaries."
"I think that's the way we do it the next four years," Gordon said. "By the end of the day, we're going to cut through this legislative-executive crap," he said to applause from the audience.
But, by the end of Gordon's half hour speech, several members of council were left wondering what the actual numbers of the budget were. Councilman George Smiley (D-New Castle), for one, said Gordon mentioned a whole "Christmas list" of items, including new hires, but did not mention much detail on how those new hires would be paid for.
Smiley, chairman of the Finance Committee, said he was looking forward to going home and actually reading the budget and to the budget hearings scheduled to begin next week.
The budget address was Gordon's first since he left office in 2004 and the first since taking office four months ago, a period he called a difficult transition.
Gordon said setting aside $150,000 to hire a highly qualified consultant was crucial to helping New Castle County give the Unified Development Code an overhaul after years of amendments. He also wanted to hire a consultant to help New Castle County and Wilmington petition the Delaware General Assembly stop having the upstate entities subsidize Kent and Sussex counties.
Page 2 of 3 - He also spoke of redesigning the county's website and utilizing Twitter and Facebook and enabling county residents to use their smartphones to pay their bills, apply for permits and report incidents of graffiti, Gordon said.
In addition, Gordon said he wanted the county's overhauled website to list all vendors and every penny paid out to them out of the executive's office as well as all campaign contributions made to the county's elected officials in the interest of full disclosure.
Lastly, Gordon spoke of New Castle County's important relationship with the city of Wilmington – the county seat – and the need to improve their cooperation with regard to public safety. Gordon, a former New Castle County Police chief, said he met with Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams earlier on Tuesday and agreed that absorbing the Wilmington Police Department into the county's was not the answer.
"So, the mayor and I structured it so that within a few weeks county police will be sworn in as Wilmington police and Wilmington police will be sworn in as county police," Gordon said, receiving an ovation from the crowd.
Councilman Penrose Hollins (D-Wilmington North) called Gordon's budget address "very unusual."
"There was talk about the what, why and when," he said. "But there was no mention of the how – the revenue, the expenses. I want to remain cautiously optimistic, but I 've got to deal with the realities here."
Councilman Timothy Sheldon (D-Pike Creek) was also anxious to read the budget. Until then, at the very least, he said the idea of Gordon trying to ease tensions between the branches of government intrigued him.
"I do like the idea," Sheldon said. "He extended the olive branch. I look forward to that."
Council members were usually given copies of the budget prior to the county executive's budget address, Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick (R-Hockessin) said. She thought it was odd that council members did not receive the documents until after the meeting.
"I thought the speech was interesting," Kilpatrick said. "But it really was not a budget address. This was a lot of conceptual comments about where he would like to go with the county."
Plus, Kilpatrick was a little uncomfortable with Gordon's eccentric invitation for cart blanche access to departments within the executive branch.
"That's a check and balance," Kilpatrick said. "Certainly, we've always talked to managers of the departments. But we shouldn't be roaming the hallways … in a FOIA environment."
NEW CASTLE COUNTY BUDGET OVERVIEW
OPERATING BUDGET $250.9 million, a 3.24 percent increase
GENERAL FUND $169.2 million, a 3.16 percent increase
NON-DISCRETIONARY SPENDING (salaries, benefits, debt service) 88 percent
Page 3 of 3 - AUTHORIZED POSITIONS 1,581, an increase of 19
NO PROPERTY TAX INCREASE Average residential bill of $502 annually or $1.37 per day; 64 cents of every dollar goes to public safety
NO SEWER RATE INCREASE Average residential bill of $283 annually
SOURCE: New Castle County Department of Finance