The New Castle County Department of Community Services' proposal to fill 11 vacancies for the 2014 fiscal year in a budget that would increase spending 5.76 percent to $17.77 million generated a lot of discussion at its budget presentation to the New Castle County Council Finance Committee Monday afternoon in the City/County Building.
What piqued council's interest was the fact that seven of those vacant positions were currently unfunded in the 2013 operating budget.
On top of those 11 vacancies, there were seven, unfunded vacant positions that were usually funded by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development, Community Services General Manager Alan Matas said. But NCCo Department of Community Services was reticent to fill the seven HUD positions given the likelihood that the county would be on the hook to spend precious, local operating dollars should federal dollars dry up in these uncertain times, he said.
The Department of Community Services budget called for keeping the authorized workforce at 147 for 2014 for the second straight year. The 147 positions in 2013 were calculated based on the staff levels theoretically needed to provide services and to administer the county's libraries, parks and recreational programs, said Ed Milowicki, a specialist within the NCCo Department of Finance. The authorized positions included unfunded positions, Milowicki said. He likened unfunded positions to placeholders that were easier to keep as part of the head count rather than permanently cut them – only to ask council later to reinstate those positions.
Among the seven vacancies currently unfunded in the operating budget, five of those positions would be staffed in the county's libraries and two in county parks, Matas said.
The new, larger Claymont Public Library in Darley Green would replace the small branch on Green Street and be fully operational by autumn, Matas said. And the Bear Library was closed for nearly a year for an extensive renovation, but it had recently reopened and would need to be staffed at full strength, he said.
"We need to bring our library staffing up to full complement," Matas said. "It's important that we do this, especially in light of the fact that we've moved ahead with the library on Route 9 and the southern library."
As for the two administrative positions, two employees were needed for the increased activities at county parks, Matas said.
Councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick asked if the county's decision to bring back Sleep Under the Stars at Carousel and other county parks factored into the need for additional staffing.
Matas said that was the case and there would be no charge for the public. But, the county was looking to charge nominal fees for some other programs to help offset operating costs, he said. His department would prepare a breakdown of costs associated for personnel and facilities and present that to council.
Page 2 of 2 - Councilman George Smiley (D-New Castle said he would like to see that breakdown prior to passage of the final budget. Smiley has been critical of the Gordon administration's proposal to use $4 million in county reserves to balance the 2014 fiscal year budget, scheduled to take effect July 1, 2013.
Councilman Penrose Hollins (D-Wilmington North) asked if any of the money from the vacant positions in operational funds that were already funded could go toward the unfunded positions the department wanted to add.
Department of Community Services budget and procedure analyst Eileen Latham said there was a complicated, long process of reclassification of positions that had to be followed with Human Resources in order to do that. Indeed, two of the unfunded positions were in that process using savings from the vacant, funded positions, she said. But the department had not taken that tact for the other positions.
Hollins wondered why it would be so complicated if the department needed these positions.
Matas simply agreed that this was a challenge.
As for the seven unfunded positions usually paid for the federal funds, the Department of Community Services was in a precarious situation, at best, Matas said. HUD paid for such things as the administration of Section 8 housing in New Castle County.
"Our staff is stretched to the max trying to deal with all the clients we have," Matas said. "But, we're unable, given the uncertainty at the federal level, to go ahead and fund these. Certainly, we're cognizant that if we fund these individuals with federal funds and the funds dry up, these individuals pop on over to operational costs."
In short, they would become a burden on the county's tax revenues, he said.
Matas recommended filling one administrative position given all the paperwork required by federal regulations. Besides that, he would err on the side of caution and leave the other six HUD positions vacant.
Milowicki added that the federal government was still providing funding for programs it wanted local governments to run, but it had ceased to provide funding for staff needed to administer those programs.