Wilmington mayor Mike Purzycki says tax hikes and budget cuts are needed to avert what he calls a looming fiscal crisis in the state’s largest city.
Purzycki is taking a multi-year approach to budgeting and he says that shows if nothing is done, the city faces dire consequences.
"The budget office’s first draft of a four-year budget plan, with no cuts and no revenue enhancements, revealed what could reasonably be called a budget crisis—a combined $54 million deficit," said Purzycki.
To help avoid that, Purzycki is seeking what he calls a "modest" a 7.5 percent property tax increase in his $154.1 million budget for next year. That increase would create a $3 million surplus in FY 2018 and eliminate of limit shortfalls over the following three.
"It seems to me the responsible thing to do is raise taxes this one time and moderate our deficits going forward," said Purzycki.
City Council President Hanifa Shabazz says she's not surprised by the call for a tax increase.
"As a council member from the last term, we knew that if we didn't make some increases at that time, we were going to have to make one [now]," said Shabazz. "I'm very proud they were able to avoid a double digit increase, but we knew there was going to have to be some kind of property [tax] increase."
The proposed property tax hike would be the first since 2015, when it was bumped up 5 percent and only the second since 2011, when a 10 percent increase was enacted. The Purzycki administration says it would cost an average home with an assessed property of $50,000 $70 per year or $5.83 each month.
Purzycki is also asking for 4 percent increase as part of his $71 million dollar water and sewer budget.
The water and sewer rate hike would be the first in 3 years. It would cost residents an additional $1.81 on their quarterly bill.
Purzycki also wants to address the city's budget problems by eliminating 29 vacant city jobs, including 16 firefighter positions and 5 police patrol positions. That would save $2.5 million in spending
He says elimination of those fire and police positions won’t affect public safety, if the unions will work with the city to improve the way it uses its current resources.
"We must also control the deployment of personnel better than we have in the past, which results not only in excessive overtime spending, but in the case of police, in not having enough officers on the street at any given time," said Purzyci. "In the case of firefighters, the current 24-72 hour shift [one day on, and three days off] is highly inefficient. It is also one source of our acute overtime problem, and since fire has the highest incidence of sick time, it seems to encourage excessive sick time use."
Purzycki also says he would resume the practice of rolling bypasses to respond to staffing shortages.
Timothy Taggert, vice president Wilmington Fire Union Local 1590, was not pleased with what he heard.
Taggart says the union and city agreed to the current shift set up years ago at the city's request, and the union took a smaller pay raise as part of that deal.
"That's not completely fair for them to come back now, many years later, [and say] we want to go back to a different shift when we actually accepted a smaller COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) back then," said Taggart. "I don't think its right for them right now to even discuss the shift when its a contractual item."
"I know the current shifts and schedules were negotiated with the city in good faith and I am not insensitive to the fact that some employees have built their lives around these shifts, but we all must in good faith revisit these issues," said Purzycki in his speech. "In the interest of more efficiency and economically-run city departments, we must fairly and vigorously negotiate more equitable work schedules. Frankly, no one can seriously defend the status quo."
Taggart adds the firefighters union will also fight bringing back the rolling bypass.
"It is a dangerous practice," said Taggart. "The citizens pay for six engines and two ladders to be protecting them at all times. So, that's what they deserve."
The new mayor says a number of factors added to the pressure on Wilmington's bottom line this fiscal year. They are:
- Unbudgeted raises for city employees last year that cost $6.7 million
- The lack of catastrophic insurance coverage to handle workers compensation claims related to firefighters injured in September's Canby Park fire which the city expects will cost at least 6.5 million.
- $2 million over budget for police and fire overtime.
He adds that a projected $1.2 million increase in in employee and retiree health benefits and a projected $3 million dollar decrease in city age tax revenue are also applying budgetary pressure.
And while those pressures mean his budget has no money for new programs and initiatives, Purzycki is touting a soon to launch Neighborhood Stabilization program that relies on current city and state resources to eliminate blight and rehab and reshape neighborhoods quickly. Purzycki says the first neighborhood the program will work in should be announced in the next few weeks.
Purzycki also announced he expects to name a new police chief "very soon."
The mayor's $154.1 million budget proposal is virtually flat compared to the current fiscal year, increasing by just 0.1 percent.
City Council will hold hearings on the budget over the next two months with a vote on a final plan slated for mid-May.