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County executive candidates offer views

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by Christi Milligan

Candidates for the office of New Castle County Executive made a joint appearance at the Wilmington Rotary Club’s weekly meeting last month and offered their strategies for a new and effective administration.

Matt Meyer (Photo by Fred Bourdon)

Matt Meyer (Photo by Fred Bourdon)

Matt Meyer, who defeated incumbent County Executive Tom Gordon in the primary, and Republican candidate Mark Blake took turns responding to questions that ranged from core expectations of county government to managing an administration beleaguered by criticisms and bickering among its officials and high-ranking employees.

“We need to focus on what the county does different than the state,” said Blake, who said his focus would include public safety and a streamlined land-use process. Blake said cutting excess in the county and collecting on the nearly $2 million in outstanding sewer bills would create a leaner and more effective county government. 

“There’s so much waste,” said Blake, former president and current vice president of the Greater Hockessin Development Association. A 14-year resident of Delaware, Blake said he has worked for two Fortune 500 companies and started several of his own businesses.

Meyer, a lifelong Delaware resident, teacher at Prestige Academy and former diplomat with the State Department, said his administration would be defined by three key components that voters have long asked for: transparency, honesty and efficiency.

Mark Blake (Photo by Fred Bourdon)

Mark Blake (Photo by Fred Bourdon)

“It starts from ground up,” said Meyer. “We want to develop accurate information that’s easily accessible, inclusive, and efficient, and work together to develop policies and procedures that benefit us all.”

As for setting the tone for employees and council members, Blake said he doesn’t like drama and would like to make county government “boring and predictable” as well as fair and transparent.

Meyer said there are three questions that should guide every decision of the county government: “Is it the truth? Is it fair? And is it beneficial?”

Other issues discussed by the panelists:

Public safety and land use

Meyer said he would take a hard look at the sewer billing system to ensure the process operated efficiently and that outstanding bills were paid. He also added that unpaid school taxes could generate millions in additional revenue for the county.

Blake noted the cutting wasteful excess could funnel additional monies into underpaid volunteer fire companies for payroll and equipment expenses.

“We need to make sure they’re paid well. Cut the waste and we can fund more volunteer fire companies to supply volunteers and equipment,” said Blake.

Economic development and job creation

Both candidates agreed that a streamlined approval process is key to attracting new businesses and those looking to expand.

According to Blake, county government must move away from choosing “winners and losers” and make sure that every business has equal footing and is offered a streamlined process for starting or expanding their business.

“The government’s role is not to create jobs but to create environment that fosters job creation,” he said.

Blake also suggested eyeing targeted development zones where infrastructure already exists like the GM and Chrysler plants, where construction costs could be minimized.

Meyer said Delaware’s best strategies are to attract companies from outside the county or state; grow existing businesses; and encourage startups.

“What we’re going to do collaboratively with state and city of Wilmington certain industry sectors and make sure we’re the friendliest place to start a business in that industry,” said Meyer, who noted that 10 years ago Delaware boasted more Ph.D.s in chemical engineering, but missed the opportunity to become a hub for chemical engineering startups.

Public safety

Meyer pointed to the risk of losing entire generation to crime and drugs, and said headway can be made in addressing the root causes of violence.

“We need to develop plans and programs with Wilmington that are completely collaborative with state and federal government to deal with policing and root causes of violence – issues like early childhood education, recidivism and job creation,” said Meyer.

Blake said he would push for an integrated 911 call center for city, county and state police. That system would account for location of every patrol car in New Castle County and allow the nearest officer to respond.

Blake said that for every dollar that New Castle County collects in taxes, 63 cents goes to county public safety services.

“We need to make sure that our first responders have the right tools to perform their jobs and keep safe while doing it and we need to have better cost controls in place to make sure that taxpayers are getting the most for their tax dollars. This is the largest expense for NCC taxpayers and in order to keep our world-class public safety services, we must look for ways to cut costs out of county government.”

County employee engagement and management

Looking for efficiencies in operation is key, according to Blake, who pointed to 130 vacant positions in county government with an annual average salary of $38,000. He also lamented the county’s slow land-use approval process.

“If you want to kill an hour, call Land Use,” said Blake, who said it’s about putting the right people in and looking at how to do the best with the least.

“I’m frugal, not cheap,” said Blake. “Everything I’ve done is about efficiency and cost-effectiveness. I can keep taxes the same without cutting services.”

Meyer said he would identify an excellent team to run county government and instill a culture of service, transparency and efficiency that will promulgate across county government.

“There are a lot of excellent, experienced county employees,” said Meyer. “We need to make sure we identify and incentivize those people appropriately, a merit system so those that are doing excellent work understand the pathway way of rising up the ladder.”

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