New Castle County Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick's nominee for the NCCo Pension Board turned into something of a power struggle between the legislative and executive branches of local government Tuesday night in the City/County Building.
New Castle County Council debated the Hockessin Republican's nominee, Terry Stone, a man from her district, for more than an hour amidst a backdrop of New Castle County Chief Administrative Officer David Grimaldi's stern warning that the appointment of someone without expertise in financial analysis would not bode well for the $400 million pension, which was 74 percent funded at this point.
The pension fund faced a long term total liability of $700 million in the near future, Grimaldi said. That would leave the county with an unfunded mandate of $300 million it had to meet, he said.
As such, the county was not in a position to appoint anyone to the Pension Board without expertise in financial analysis, Grimaldi said.
In all, a number of New Castle County Council members said they were embarrassed that Stone was thrust into the midst of this debate as a man who simply volunteered his time to help local government. The rift between the branches of government started with council's Executive Committee meeting earlier on Tuesday afternoon in the eighth floor conference room.
That was where Kilpatrick first felt blindsided by the Gordon administration's opposition to Stone's appointment.
"There were rumors in the halls that I nominated this person as an enemy of the administration," Kilpatrick said.
She dispelled that rumor and added that Stone was simply a well-rounded candidate willing to volunteer his time as a retiree for New Castle County, with experience dealing with pension boards in his line of work. Stone had earlier explained to council's Executive Committee his background in human resources during his time at Syngenta and Zeneca, among others, and his bachelor's degree in business administration from the State University of New York at Brockport.
During committee, Grimaldi first outlined the challenges the pension fund faced, surprising members of council.
Councilman Penrose Hollins (D-Wilmington North) said several members of council were disappointed in what had taken place in committee. Namely, it was unfair of administration officials to put New Castle County's pending pension problems "on the back of one citizen."
Councilman Bill Bell (D-Middletown) said Stone had a fine résumé. But he reiterated his concern – expressed in committee – that the Pension Board needed people with expertise. Bell said he took Grimaldi at his word regarding his concerns with the pension fund and asked Grimaldi, Human Resources Director Lynn Beaty and Chief Financial Officer Michael Coupe to restate their concerns with appointing someone without financial expertise to the Pension Board.
Page 2 of 3 - Grimaldi said the administration's opposition to Stone was not political.
"This is not the time to be putting a financial amateur on the board," Grimaldi said. "That is our objection."
Grimaldi said the administration was willing to appoint Stone to the position soon to be vacant on the Human Resources Advisory Board.
Councilman George Smiley (D-New Castle) asked if the Pension Board currently had members without financial expertise. Grimaldi conceded that there were several members on the board without the expertise he sought. But that made finding such board members all the more crucial, he said.
Councilman Bob Weiner (R-Chatham) agreed with Grimaldi, lamenting how financial expertise had decreased in on the Pension Board going back more than a decade. Weiner said that expertise was crucial given the board members' fiduciary responsibilities.
New Castle County Police Cpl. Mike Zielinski, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said his union also supported the selection of Pension Board members with the financial expertise needed to oversee the $400 pension fund.
Councilman Joseph Reda (D-Elsmere) responded that the current Pension Board had done a good job in overseeing the pension fund's rebound since the financial collapse of Wall Street back in 2008.
Councilman John Cartier (D-Holly Oak) said it was important for council to consider Grimaldi's concerns with the pension. But he disagreed with putting Stone in the middle of this problem.
"It's hard enough to get people to volunteer in New Castle County," he said. "We shouldn't try to make this into a political football."
Councilman Jea Street (D-Wilmington South) said the administration's opposition "at the 11th hour" was nothing more than a power play.
"All the financial gurus on Wall Street got us into this mess," he said. "In a few minutes, we'll know where the real power is. I think it's a slap in the face for this administration to sabotage Councilwoman Kilpatrick's nomination."
As council neared a vote on the mater, Smiley added that a college degree was often overrated. He said the current Pension Board had used of lot of street logic and had asked tough questions in order to keep the pension in relatively good health.
In the end, council voted 9-4 to appoint Stone to the NCCo Pension Board.
NEW CASTLE COUNTY COUNCIL
Vote on Pension Board appointment
Page 3 of 3 - Bill Bell