The New Castle County Department of Special Services' 2014 fiscal year budget caused consternation amongst a few members of New Castle County Council when the general manager of the department proposed adding new positions to the budget despite the fact that several existing positions were vacant as of Monday.
Acting Special Services Manager Wayne Merritt's proposed, $46.3 million budget that would increase spending 2.96 percent over 2013 during New Castle County Council's latest budget hearing held Monday. But what got the attention of council on the eighth floor of the City/County Building was the department's proposal to add 12 unfunded positions in addition to 23 current positions that were still vacant. That would increase the authorized workforce of the Department of Special Services' sewer fund to 209.5.
Merritt's budget proposal was a follow up to New Castle County Executive Tom Gordon's overall budget address in March, when he proposed adding 19 positions within the $250.9 million budget -- a 3.24 percent spending increase compared to 2013. Gordon had said most of those new hires would work in the construction and maintenance sector to repair deteriorating buildings and facilities crucial to maintaining New Castle County's quality of life and ability to attract businesses to upstate Delaware.
Merritt said New Castle County had spent $100 million in sewer upgrades to Brandywine Hundred and it would continue to make upgrades throughout the county.
"We're asking for 12 more people in sewer, 10 of which are in special projects," Merritt said. "Several of the positions we're asking for were eliminated in 2005. From 2005 until now we've lost 70 positions."
Councilman Jea Street (D-Wilmington South) asked how much the 12 positions would cost. The operating budget would pay $150,000 for 30 percent of these positions' salaries but 70 percent of their salaries would come from the capital budget, Special Services officials said.
Street was not happy with what he thought was a vague answer.
"I'm confused," Street said. "Something's wrong with this sales pitch."
Jonathan Husband, of Special Services, said the total cost for the new positions would be $515,000. But Husband said the county would actually save money in the long term, to the tune of 20 percent, by using in-house staff for construction projects instead of bidding them out. For instance, $800,000 of in house work would turn into a $1 million project using outside work, he said.
But Street was not buying it. As he put it, the county would end up spending more money to supposedly save money.
"I don't understand the math or the logic," he said. "Maybe it's just me."
Councilmen John Cartier (D-Holly Oak) and Timothy Sheldon (D-Pike Creek) said they understood where Husband was coming from in terms of the work that the county had to do to ensure its sewer system was in compliance with federal regulations.
Page 2 of 2 - "We're not getting enough done and we're contracting it out," Sheldon said.
But Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick noticed that there were 23 vacancies within the Department of Special Services' sewer fund.
"If we did fill the vacancies we would be able to get more done," she said. "I don't know where the justification comes for 12 more positions."
Street also expressed concern with the county dipping into its reserve to the tune of $4 million to hire additional people.
"The more we talk, the worse it seems," Street added. "We've been able to do all this wonderful work without the 23 and the 12. So, now the math and the logic are really confusing."
Councilman Penrose Hollins (D-Wilmington North) expressed concern with the sustainability of adding personnel costs, the county's largest expense.
But Councilman William Powers (D-Townsend) said New Castle County still had the cheapest sewer rates in the state. And there was work that needed to be done to repair aging infrastructure and thereby avoid fines, he said.
"Once your sewer backs up, everybody will be complaining," Powers said.
Councilwoman Lisa Diller (D-Newark) said she understood the need for infrastructure improvements. But she didn't see how more people could be hired without more money in the county coffers.
Husband said the money would come from $105 million in the capital budget.
"The money will be spent anyway," he said. "We're saying we can do it cheaper [in house]."
Councilman George Smiley (D-New Castle) responded that he had a $30,000 limit on his credit card. That did not mean he was going to max it out, he said.
"We can't continue to grow the workforce based on drawing on the reserve," he said. "I don't believe in kicking the proverbial can [down the road]."