(March 31, 2020 by Delaware Public Media) New Castle County Council passed a multi-million-dollar COVID-19 response package — at the request of the County Executive. County Executive Matt Meyer proposed a $303 million operating budget with no tax increase for next fiscal year to New Castle County Council by teleconference Tuesday.
He also proposed a package of emergency ordinances putting $2 million toward responding to the coronavirus, which Council passed unanimously.
It puts $1 million toward purchasing personal protective equipment, test kits and other medical supplies, which the County Executive could distribute to County first responders, employees and residents directly or alongside hospitals or public health organizations.
It also directs $500,000 to the Delaware Community Foundation, which is coordinating an effort to alleviate the impacts of the coronavirus in Delaware alongside Philanthropy Delaware, United Way of Delaware, and the Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement, and another $500,000 to the Delaware State Housing Authority’s Emergency COVID-19 Rental Assistance program.
The county is also suspending its lodging tax, sign permit fees, and residential sewer penalties.
Meyer says the County can afford these steps because “tough decisions” made over the past few years bolstered the County’s tax stabilization reserve.
“We worked hard to enhance that reserve, doubling it to nearly $40 million in the past 18 months alone, so that it would be available in times of crisis,” he said. “Now it is time to use it.”
Councilman John Cartier pointed to the needs of the County’s first responders.
“[They’re] on the front lines, very stressed right now, especially with our ambulance, and have a dire need for PPE [personal protective equipment],” he said. “So I’m glad we’re going to be sourcing that to them, standing behind them in this crisis.”
Cartier, co-chair of the finance committee, also says the County has the “financial strength” to be proactive in the face of the crisis.
The funding to purchase medical supplies and contribute to the nonprofit collaborative response will come from the tax stabilization reserve. The funding for the rental assistance program will come from the County’s roughly $2 million Housing Trust Fund, Cartier said.
The Housing Trust Fund was created to address the housing needs of very low-income, low-income and moderate-income families, according to County Council, and receives contributions from developers who participate in the County’s workforce housing incentive program.
Councilman Penrose Hollins brought attention to this before voting to support the ordinance.
“I think when we talk about vulnerable populations when times are good, we need to give them the same consideration in good times as we do in bad times,” he said. “And I think this is a prime example of that.”
“Not only is the Housing Trust Fund funded by workforce housing, but for those families that are currently in housing that perhaps would not be in housing if it were not for workforce housing ... ,” he added. “I would encourage my colleagues on County Council, when we’re talking about social justice issues whether it be fairness in housing, fairness in contracts, that we can give it the same sensitivity that we’re giving it now when we’re in a crisis situation.”
Meyer admitted that economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus could change budget projections.
“Many of the assumptions of our $209 million general fund operating budget, $84 million sewer operating budget and $65 million capital budget are rapidly changing,” he said. “We will work with County Council in the coming months as we see how our revenue projections change, and as we first make immediate investments to preserve our community through this crisis.”
New Castle County closed libraries and playgrounds in response to the coronavirus. It recently set up free WiFi hotspots for residents, and contributed to temporary hand-washing and bathroom stations for people experiencing homelessness in the City of Wilmington.
In an op-ed, Meyer recently criticized “ ineffective testing guidelines that test only those experiencing the most serious symptoms,” and instead advocated for testing all Delawareans, regardless of symptoms. He argued widespread testing would help identify asymptomatic cases, aid in social distancing to control the spread of the virus, and allow the economy to restart faster.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers guidance on who should be tested, but those testing decisions are ultimately at the discretion of state and local health departments.
Delaware’s statewide testing system, launched last week by the Department of Health and Social Services in partnership with area hospitals and health systems, requires a patient to present with a fever as well as a cough or shortness of breath to be tested.
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