Posted: March 23, 2006
ABOUT THAT CAMPAIGN PROMISE . . .
By Celia Cohen
Campaign promises come dressed in the bright and bold colors of political circulars. When Democrat Christopher A. Coons was running for New Castle County executive in 2004, his fliers listing the top priority of his "Action Plan" were printed in in red, yellow and blue.
"NO INCREASE IN PROPERTY TAXES"
Government can be so much more black and white. In the second year of Coons' administration, with the campaign's seductive colors drained away, he proposed a property tax increase of 5 percent for the next county budget.
The Coons administration appears to have gone blank about this matter. Two days of telephone calls and e-mail asking about what happened to that old campaign promise produced nothing but another empty promise to come up with an answer.
The pledge may take even more of a pounding in the future than what it is getting with this proposed hike, estimated by county officials to tack $16 onto the average homeowner's bill of $326 a year.
In Coons' budget address Tuesday evening, he noted the county's income is not keeping up with its outgo. He alluded to the shock of Delmarva Power's projected increase of nearly 60 percent in electric bills -- implying that he was avoiding that sort of heart-thumping rise but would be phasing more tax hikes in.
Christy Gleason, the county's communications director, conceded it could be so. "Future property tax increases will likely be necessary in the coming years," she said.
There could be more. In a single paragraph buried near the end of a 35-minute speech -- when the tune-out ratio would be high -- Coons suggested the county also might have to search for new taxes or fees, get rid of the responsibility for some parks, cinch in wages and benefits for county workers, cut unspecified programs or conduct a property reassessment, last done in 1983.
Coons spent four years as the County Council president before he was elected county executive, so he had to know something of the political pitfalls that go with the job.
In a restructuring of county government, the first county executive was elected 40 years ago, and not one has gone on to future elected office. One went to jail. The last one is under indictment.
County property taxes have not been increased for 10 years, primarily because the government grew fat and happy with real estate transfer taxes, which came with the housing boom, to finance a $200-million operation with money to spare. People were bound to notice, even without the campaign pledge.
"With anyone who raises taxes, any kind of county taxes, after not having any for so many years, it is going to come as a shock," said James R. Soles, a professor emeritus of political science from the University of Delaware.
Campaign promises can be chancy. Sometimes voters remember, sometimes not.
Republican Richard S. Gebelein promised to run for only one term as attorney general at about the same time that Republican Pierre S. du Pont promised not to build any prisons if he was elected governor. The voters booted out Gebelein in 1982 when he did run again, but they overlooked a massive prison expansion to re-elect du Pont in 1980 with a giddy 70 percent of the vote.
The voters will have to decide what they think about Coons and his no-increase-in-property-taxes pledge.
"Their likely response is, every politician promises that," Soles said. "Delawareans are pretty reasonable people, if they see something is necessary. If you're going to ask for increased taxes, you can get away with it if it's not too big and you can explain it."
Paul G. Clark, the County Council's Democratic president, is sympathetic with Coons -- up to a point. "We've got to do something. I see the end of the tunnel, and it's a big cliff," he said.
He is also mighty relieved he never promised not to raise taxes, "All I told people is, I'll give them good value for their tax dollars," Clark said.