Public vs. private pay is volatile debate

March 4, 2011

On The Circle is moving to the new Cape Gazette website at CapeGazette.com.

When times are good, most people are not paying much attention to how much their civil servants are paid. But when times are not that good, every dollar spent by all levels of government comes under close scrutiny.

All of those dollars come from taxpayers who may be struggling to make ends meet. When taxpayers discover that public employees are being well paid and receive better benefits than they have, the wheels are set in motion for questioning and debate.

Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that many states with significant numbers of unionized public employees are also in the process of raising taxes substantially to cover pension funds and other employee-related costs. It doesn’t help that unionized workers in Wisconsin are striking and protesting in the wake of legislation to take away their bargaining rights.

The public is asking who represents them. Many private sector workers have watched their monthly income decrease with fewer raises and more out-of-pocket costs to cover health care expenses.

Union membership, especially among the public sector, is still a factor in this country. There are almost 15 million union workers; 7.6 million are in the public sector. Most are teachers, police and firefighters.*

There is no doubt collective bargaining pays off for union workers. In 2010, full-time union workers had median weekly earnings of $917 compared to $717 for nonunion workers.*

No Sussex County employees are unionized. From time to time union talk arises, but it’s quickly squashed.

Slowly but surely, government has become the top employer in the state. Sussex County, with more than 500 employees, is also among the top employers in the county. Although our property taxes are low, it’s amazing to see that most of the county’s $47 million operating budget goes to employment costs – salaries and benefits.

Sussex County workers have traditionally been underpaid by most standards, yet their benefit package is a good one that includes minor employee contributions to health insurance – including dental and vision – and a pension plan with no employee contributions. Among the other benefits county employees receive include life insurance, 15 paid holidays, long-term disability and 15 paid sick days.

It’s a pretty good package that most workers in the private sector do not have.

The private vs. public numbers add to a debate over pay and benefits, which is like a ticking time bomb in a tough economy.

*U.S. Department of Labor statistics

Advertisements

To back in, or not to back in

February 22, 2011

Most cars in this line backed into spots in a Georgetown parking lot.

There are two distinct types of people – drivers who pull in and park and those who back in to park. Why is that? There seems to be no rhyme or reason why certain drivers take the time to back in while others pull in.

Are those who back in so driven to get away quickly? Or do they feel safer looking forward out of a parking spot?

Most people pull in, and in many cases drivers are prohibited by law from backing into a parking space. That’s the case in Rehoboth Beach where it’s head-in parking only.

It would be interesting to do a psychological study of those who use public parking lots in Georgetown where there are no restrictions on parking. At least one third of drivers using the lots back into parking spots if they have a chance.

Believe it or not, studies have been done on the topic of how people park. Studies show that people who back in tend to leave in a hurry and drive faster to leave their parking spots creating unsafe situations. Drivers that back out, even those in small cars who have trouble seeing around pick-ups and SUVs, are safer drivers.

I pull into parking spots because I’m not the greatest driver when it comes to backing up.

Back in or pull in? That is the question.

In this economy, every dollar helps

February 7, 2011

Every dollar in the Sussex County till helps a little, and $177,800 helps a lot.

The Sussex County engineering department was able to negotiate that savings as part of the Inland Bays Regional Wastewater Facility expansion project. The savings reduces the capital cost of the project, funded by the sewer district, and customers will save a little on their sewer bill.

The action is just one example of the penny-pinching attitude within Sussex County government. In these tough economic times, when government workers are being laid off right and left ­– including police and firefighters – it’s encouraging to note that the same has not happened in Sussex County.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to make cuts in staff than it is in programs.

Through attrition, early retirements and repositioning staff, the county has been able to cut the work force without seriously affecting  those trying to make ends meet by keeping their jobs.

When you consider that most of the county’s $46 million operating budget –­ 62 percent in fiscal 2011 – is spent on employees and benefits, it’s amazing Sussex County has been able to hold the line.

Employees have had to do with a little less, and some are paying more for healthcare insurance. When you consider the alternative, a little sacrifice is worth it.

The passing of two great teachers

February 4, 2011

I was sorry to read of the passing of Tina Fallon. She was one of the most energetic ladies I have ever known. Serving as a state representative from 1978 to 2006, age didn’t seem to be a deterrent to her schedule. She got up early and got home late most days as she went about the business of representing her constituents. Most of that business involved getting out and meeting and talking with people.

Tina Fallon

She was a people person who was a great listener. She was so well liked no one dared run against her.

But she had another life prior to being elected to the General Assembly. As a middle school science teacher in the Seaford School District, she left her mark on hundreds of students. She was a hands-on teacher who was ahead of her time.

It wasn’t unusual that four people at a recent Sussex County Council meeting noted they had her as a teacher: Lawrence Lank, director of planning and zoning; councilmen George Cole and Mike Vincent; and yours truly.

I had the hardest time calling Mrs. Fallon “Tina” as I grew up and became an adult in her adopted hometown of Seaford.

We had many long talks over the years because we had a similar interest in local politics. I not only wrote about her as a reporter and editor at The Leader newspaper in Seaford; in later years I worked with her directly as a member of the Seaford City Council.

I really never considered Tina a politician, even though she served in elected office for an amazing 28 years. She was more of a friend of the people who happened to go to Dover on occasion.

There will be a memorial service for her in Seaford sometime this spring.

Another one of my favorite teachers, Jim Young, passed away recently. I got to know Jim very well in my adult life as a fellow member of the Seaford Kiwanis Club. I valued his opinions on matters above most others.

In sixth grade, he introduced us to the world of model rocketry, and we had a blast – literally. Beyond the fancy Estes model rockets, we constructed our own rockets out of cardboard paper towel and toilet paper tubes.

I learned more about science that year, even though he was only my homeroom teacher, than I did in science class.

Mike Vincent says his work is done

February 2, 2011

You really never know what will happen during a Sussex County Council meeting. If nothing else, it’s a great place for quotes.

During a discussion over a conditional-use application for Lawson’s Produce in Harbeson Tuesday, Feb. 1, something unusual occurred.

Council members Joan Deaver, Sam Wilson and Vance Phillips agreed to change three conditions recommended by the county’s planning and zoning commission. It’s rare that Wilson and Phillips see eye-to-eye with Deaver on anything. The three voted for the changes and for the conditional use to pave the way for a mulching operation.

The action prompted Council President Mike Vincent to comment on the historical event.

“I’ve only been president for one month, and I already have Joan, Sam and Vance on the same page. My work is done,” he said.

The comment drew smiles from the council and another comment from Phillips who said the quote would likely end up in this blog. He was right.

The Oracle of Sussex County

February 2, 2011

During the Tuesday, Feb. 1 Sussex County Council meeting, a familiar voice was heard. Joe Conaway, a former county administrator who is known for speaking his mind, got involved in a debate with Councilman George Cole over the merits of allowing time extensions to developers.

During the discussion, Conaway came up with this piece of advice: “Sometimes, even if you do it wrong, you have to do something.”

Based on his comments and observations, Cole called Conaway the Oracle of Sussex County.

It’s a title the jovial Conaway is probably proud of.

Walking wounded in Sussex County

January 6, 2011

The walking wounded – Dave Baker and J. Everett Moore.

Sussex County Council chambers is slowly becoming the room of the walking wounded, and it’s beginning to creep around the council table.

First, County Administrator Dave Baker fell off his deck Thanksgiving Day, broke a bone in his kneecap and has been on crutches ever since. Now, county attorney J. Everett Moore is sporting an eye patch following unexpected eye surgery to start off the new year. He said someone must have been playing a cruel joke on him during the Tuesday, Jan. 4 council meeting, as he had to read a stack of letters –many more than normal – to council.

Because the two sit side-by-side at the table, Councilman Sam Wilson might start worrying a little since he is third in line.

Suggestions for resolutions

December 30, 2010

I’m sure Sussex County Council members make their own New Year’s resolutions, but perhaps they should consider the following:

Sam Wilson will sit closer to the microphone in 2011 so people can hear what he is saying. (This is a repeat resolution from last year.)

George Cole will finally write a book called “Quips and Quotes from the Council Chambers.”

Vance Phillips, and others, will resolve to vote on every issue, but if they don’t vote, they will give a clear-cut reason for their action.

Joan Deaver will push to get an adequate public facilities ordinance passed in 2011.

Mike Vincent, who has a fairly decent track record in this regard, will make sure he travels to coastal Sussex on a regular basis.

I’m sure there are many people out there who come up with a list of their own.

Not made in the U.S.A.

December 29, 2010

I was watching a Modern Marvels segment on Christmas tech and it hit me square in the face how many of our products are now made outside the United States. Into the mid-20th century just about every holiday decoration and trapping was made right here in the good ole U.S.A. It’s not the case today. During a quick search of the depleted holiday shelves this week, I could only find one Christmas product made in the U.S. – candy canes.

Spangler Candy Co. has been making candy canes since 1906, but Bob’s, owned by Farley’s and Sathers Candy Co., claims to be the largest candy cane maker in the world.

At least we have corned the live-tree market. The Chinese have not figured out a way to grow live Christmas trees yet so almost all trees are still grown in the U.S. with the majority coming from Oregon and North Carolina.

If you have ever run across one of the massive Christmas tree farms in your travels, you understand how big a business it is. There are between 25 million and 30 million trees sold each year in the U.S., according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Eighty percent of artificial trees worldwide are manufactured in China, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. It’s a safe bet that at least that percentage of holiday light strings are also made in China, a country that does not even celebrate the holiday.

In addition, most of the gifts we purchase – from toys to electronics – are not manufactured in the U.S.

You can find loads of American-made products on websites such as toysmadeinamerica.com and americansworking.com. But looking at the sites you soon discover that the vast majority of the hot items from major manufacturers are not made in the U.S. It’s sad that you have to search for U.S. products that way. Remember when Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer with revenue of $404 billion in 2009, placed signs boasting about selling U.S. products? Those signs at the entrance to stores all over the country slowly disappeared years ago.

It really is all about the bottom line.

Mattel, the largest toy maker by revenue, closed its last U.S. plant way back in 2002 and outsourced almost all of its manufacturing to China.

Do you think your Apple computer, iPhone or iPod is made in the U.S.? Apple products, at least according to information posted on the internet, are made from components produced all over the globe, but are usually assembled in China. Wii was invented in Japan but is made in China using some U.S. technology.

Finding a big-screen TV made in the USA is about as hard as finding the Holy Grail. But, at least one company, Snytax-Brillan, plans to start assembling its high-end Olevia sets in Ontario, Calif.

More than 90 percent of our clothing is made beyond our borders with a third coming from China.

That statement brings me to the reason for the blog in the first place (it took me a while to get here). I was interested in purchasing a nice sweatshirt in Peebles that had a large U.S. flag on the front – that was until I saw where it was made, and it wasn’t China.

“Made in Russia” was on the tag. Can you believe it? We really live in a mixed up world when clothing with U.S. flags on it is made in a Moscow factory.

Sussex is not the largest county east of Mississippi

December 22, 2010

Things you might not know about Sussex County (Part 1):

• The county makes up almost half of the total land statewide – nearly 940 square miles.

• It’s not the largest county east of the Mississippi River, as many claim. There are nine counties in Maine alone that are larger than Sussex County and eight of those are larger than the state of Delaware.

• Estimated population of Sussex in 2009 was 192,747 with a projected population of more than 215,000 by 2015. Just over 82,000 Sussex residents are employed.

• Even though it is a large county it has no county parks and recreation department or police department. Although, the county provides grants to support youth and adult sports activities and allocates funding for extra state police patrols exclusive to Sussex.

• More people are moving to Sussex than are being born here. According to the U.S. Census, the majority of new residents in 2005 – 94 percent – came from other places as the result of external migration. The other 6 percent came from natural increases from births and deaths. That compares to 80 percent of newcomers in Kent County and just 28 percent in New Castle County.

• Tourism is big in Sussex providing nearly 11,000 jobs and adding nearly $710 million to the economy.

• Poultry is also big. The county ranks first among all U.S. counties in broiler production, with more than 223 million chickens grown each year. Sussex County is the birthplace of the poultry industry. One of 10 jobs in the county is related to food processing with an annual payroll of more than $236 million.

• Sussex farmers sold nearly $850 million in products in 2007; 83 percent was poultry and eggs.

Sources: U.S. Census, Census of Agriculture, Delaware Department of Labor, Sussex County planning and zoning department.