As I look around at the government landscape as we approach the presidential elections of 2012 one thing that hits me is the size and proliferation of government in the First State.
Yes we are the first state. The home of tax free shopping. As my late father bellowed out at the 1972 Democratic Convention before announcing Delaware’s vote; “Delaware the home of Corporations, Chickens, and Charters.” We are also the home of too much government. Let me present my case.
We will put aside the state legislature for the time being, twenty-one senators and forty-one representatives. Let us start with the City of Wilmington, population of approximately 71,000 people.
In its heyday in the late 50’s early 60’s, the city had 120,000 residents. City Council consisted of twelve councilmatic wards.
The city’s decline began in the 60’s with I-95, and the riots of 1968. A rebirth was experienced in the 70’s with Tom Maloney’s “City People,” and the adept use of the Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) by Mayor Bill McLaughlin to keep business in town (ie Hercules, Alico, The Raddison Hotel among others). The new City-County Building opened during Mayor McLaughlin’s first term. Mayor Dan Frawley had several successes in his 8 year stint, among them the Wilmington Blue Rocks on the Riverfront. Mayor Sills snagged MBNA to Rodney Square to fill the hole left when WSFS pulled out of their downtown tower. During Mayor Sills first term the Port was sold to the State (Diamond State Port Corporation).
Despite all those gains the city’s population has hovered for years around 71,000-72,000. Fast forward to this year. In response to the city’s current fiscal plight, At-large Councilperson Bud Freel proposed reducing the size of council to nine by eliminating the four at-large positions. This makes perfect sense given the city’s population.
I served for 12 years as a council person at-large, 1985-97. When I left office in 1997 as chairperson of the finance committee I made $23,000 per year in this part time job. Now the pay is in the $30,000 range, and committee chairs and the council president have government cars.
The city budget for FY 2012 is $140 million. My first year, 1985, it was $55 million.
Superimposed on the City of Wilmington we have New Castle County. Responding to concerns of corrupt influences the Council was expanded from seven to 13 members. An effort was mounted to thwart this expansion but Governor Minner refused to rescind it. For years the county functioned effectively with seven council people. The price tag for this expansion was $1 million (aides etc).
So the picture you have is a City Council of 13 for 71,000 people, and the County Council of 13 for over 500,00.
The county government is responsible for the un-incorporated areas.
Is your head spinning yet? In New Castle County alone we also have the Governments of the following cities, each with a mayor, council, and administrative offices: Elsmere, Newport, Newark, New Castle, Delaware City, Smyrna. We are still in New Castle County mind you. We still have Kent and Sussex County yet.
Why not consolidate these services and bureaucracies and move to a so-called “metropolitan” government? I will tell you why that will never happen in my lifetime: Everybody wants their own political fiefdom.
The cry in the city from the minority population if you propose metropolitan government will be “you are diluting our power and authority.” We saw this argument in the redistricting where Wilmington maintains three Senate seats, totally undeserved based on current population. Likewise the city maintains four state rep seats. Again look at the population numbers. With the federal government drowning in red ink the faucet for local aid will be shutoff. A serious effort needs to be initiated to consolidate services; police, legislative, administrative etc. We are going have to do what is right and forget the political expediency.
The state government is “Delaware Way” personified. Double-dipping at its best. Where can you effectively work for the executive and legislative branch at the same time? See Tony DeLuca, Helene Keely, John Viola.
Finally, I have presented the governmental landscape for 2012. You and I have had to do more with less in these trying economic times. With the high price of gas we have learned to consolidate our trips. Energy prices have forced us to turn our thermostats down in the winter and up in the summer. I wish I could say the same about our state and local governments. They eliminate budgeted vacant positions, but they never touch their bloated bureaucracies. I am for good government; honest government. I think if you check with people they will tell you that is the way I conducted business for twelve years on City Council.
We need to wake up and make these changes for our children. To do nothing is not an option.
Robert Poppiti, Sr. is a former Wilmington City Councilperson. He resides with his wife Valerie and daughter Gina Marie in Greenville, Delaware.