Delaware state budget tops $1.5 billion

Economic development position discussed during budget hearings

Terry RogersGovernment, Headlines, Milford Headline Story

Milford City Council discussed deferring the replacement of the Economic Development and Community Relations Director due to budgetary restrictions

On Tuesday, May 28, Milford City Council began a three night series of budget hearings for the 2024-25 budget. On the first night, they discussed potential revenue, the volatility of real estate transfer tax, city administration, the clerk’s office and council expenses. Prior to the meeting, Nina Pletcher spoke during the public comment period about the potential decision to delay hiring an Economic Development and Community Engagement Director, a position that has remained open since the departure of Sara Bluhm.

“I would like to highlight the shortsightedness in not hiring a full time Economic Development Community Information Officer position. Economic development has been identified as a priority in our current strategic plan, as well as for this Council’s term. It is beyond my understanding how this Council plans to set forth a viable economic development plan without a full time internal someone in the controls,” Pletcher, who is the mother of Bluhm, said. “There is 182 acres of land sitting on Canterbury Road right for development. granted an outside agency Emory Hill is in place to assist with this build out and development but how can we not have a full time internal position at the helm to oversee and manage the process as well as promote the project.”

Pletcher pointed out that when the position was filled previously, $6.2 million was secured in the form of state infrastructure grants.

“That’s no small potatoes. I’m sure you expect this level of funding to continue to come our way for the future. How do you see that happening without this person in place? Your current staff is already maxed to capacity with tasks. Please do not ask them or expect them to take on this increased workload and expect that we won’t come up short of what a full time position is proven to accomplish,” Pletcher said. “Community engagement is a separate pillar of the strategic plan. And currently there is no one in place nor does there seem to be any interest in filling that pillar. Since the public information office position has been vacant, no monthly newsletters have been included in the electric bills. This was an excellent communication tool. It proved to be both effective and affordable. Department branding which passed through the public information office in the past has also gone by the wayside without the oversight. A significant investment has been made in department branding; it should not be allowed to fade away.”

In addition to lack of consistent communication from the city, Pletcher pointed out that when the position was filled before, Milford was featured in local newscasts at least once each week.

“If it was a slow news day, they knew they could call the PIO staffer on site and get a story for the evening news that featured a Milford business or activity that far outpaced a drug bust. In my mind, this directly ties back to economic development. The more often Milford is in the spotlight, the more people will notice and perhaps consider the possibility of economic development here,” Pletcher said. “We cannot allow out of sight, out of mind to come back to haunt us. Promoting Milford is a 24/7 job of everyone here, but specifically up to the public information office staff to polish it and get it across the finish line. I hope that you will reconsider funding and filling the position of economic development, public information. Finally, on a totally separate note, just a suggestion. If you get complaints from people in the community and choose to bring them to the section of the agenda for communication and correspondence, please be sure they are Milford residents. Also consider referring them to their respective council members. There’s always this three minute opportunity for public comment if it’s that important to them.”

Later in the meeting, during the discussion about the budget for city administration, City Manager Mark Whitfield pointed out that there was a decrease of slightly over one percent in that budget which could be attributed to the deferral of the position previously held by Bluhm. He also pointed out that training costs were significant, but could be reduced, especially with the deferment of the economic development position.

“I do have a question related to the community engagement and economic development. I hear you expressing that the community engagement public relations, whatever you call it, it sounds like a need,” Councilman Jason James said. “But we should have that discussion about economic development. If there’s not a position in the city for that at least a deferral. How are we handling that? You know, for the development of the of the business park, is it the outsiders and if so, what is it costing us? And what was the deciding factor to defer? I know we haven’t combined these two positions, which I really thought they should have been separate. What was the deciding factor to defer those for a year when I hear it sounds like you’re wrestling with your decision to not include those in this this year’s budget?”

Whitfield stated that the primary reason was financial and that all departments were making sacrifices due to budgetary pressures. He pointed out that an arborist and horticulturist, which were positions in the planning for several years to begin beautification projects in town, were permanently eliminated to cover costs of police dispatchers and the crime analyst.

“But, deferring that for another year is painful. And I think on the PIO position, the community engagement position, that’s a real challenge. You know, Valerie already has a very full plate as it is, she does her best to keep up with the day-to-day items, but we could be doing a lot more,” Whitfield said. “Again, I think it is a pillar of our strategic plan. If we are going to add that position back in, it is a matter of talking to Lou to see where we find the funding to do that and maybe we pay for through future proceeds at the corporate center. We figure it in as an expense and add it on to the cost of the lots when we do the corporate center. Those are some ideas that I’ve had, anyway, if we want to continue with the position as a way to fund it.”

Councilman James felt Whitfield provided good explanations but mentioned that citizens strongly emphasized community engagement in recent strategic planning discussions. This caused him some concern in deferring the position.

“Mark, I concur with what Jason has said,” Councilman Dan Marabello said. “I’m really a little worried about not having an economic development person, but I have a question. How much money or grants was Sara responsible for getting? Was it significant?”

Whitfield replied that it was over $7 million. Councilman Marabello asked if the cost of the department was more than $7 million to which Whitfield replied no, but that others could go after the grants as well. Councilman Marabello pointed out that having one person who could look out for grant opportunities was valuable as well.

“This, this may be unrelated, or it may have been convenient, but we did put $20,000 in the budget to resume the partnership with the Kent Economic Partnership. That’s at a level of $20,000, I believe in the council budget. And I don’t know how their activities overlap with what will be missing by not filling this position,” Lou Vitola, Finance Director, said. “And I’m hearing the word deferral for this position, which makes a lot of sense, because we have what we hope could be just this one year aberration with the health benefits and with savings next year, we may be able to fit the position back in. But just a reminder to council the consumption, for lack of a better word, of the of the clerk position and horticulturalist position. I think those two were needed to be permanent in order to fund the permanent addition of dispatchers and the crime analyst. Those are positions that are not just going to be here for a year and then and then go away.”

Vitola continued, explaining that grant funds obtained by the economic development department were not able to be used to cover the cost of the position.

“It’s like those are transportation fund dollars and infrastructure dollars. We just had the benefit of a person to go after them. So, I’d hesitate to look at that form of like a return where we secured so much money, and we can use some of it to fill a position,” Vitola said. “If we did have to fill this position and if Council voted to get this position filled again, either at the start of the year or sometime in the middle of the year to fund a partial year, we could either we go back on the on the economic partnership dollars to free up those $20,000 and or leverage some additional application of reserves out of the economic development funds. So long as we do find recurring general fund money in the budget for fiscal 26 and onward, so that the position could be funded permanently with recurring dollars thereafter. So there, that’s my two cents on that discussion.”

Mayor Todd Culotta pointed out that when the position was created, his focus was on economic development, something he felt a strong mayor and council could manage, although he admitted they could not do it alone. He felt the mayor and council could do a better job of marketing the city.

“Now, we combined it with the community engagement and the public relations position. That’s some area I think we need to something. We need to be able to communicate, whether the outage of transformer, a press release or whatever,” Mayor Culotta said. “Originally when we talked about this, we talked about taking money from the Kent County Economic Development Forum, which at the time we did agree to and also possibly the DMI allotment that we give every year. At that time, it was like 30 or 40 grand. Now it’s $50,000. We ended up not having to do that. So, when we created the position, Mark was able to find money in the budget elsewhere to fund the position and continue to allow us to fund DMI. We did decide to move on from the Kent County Forum and maybe it makes sense to come back and it’s something we can discuss.”

Regardless of how the city handled public information, Mayor Culotta felt it was vital.

“My concern in eliminating that particular position. To me it appears that position was somewhat revenue neutral in that she brought in grants, tremendous amounts of grant money,” Councilwoman Nadia Zychal said. “And if he or she were to fill that position, they should increase with new economic development and more renewables that should be a sustainable revenue stream.”

Mayor Culotta stated that it was also important to remember that some of the grants were meant to be spent in specific ways and that many were during COVID when government grants were plentiful. However, he did feel that anything brought to the city in the way of grants could offset the cost of the position and that council should do a little more digging into how they can cover the costs of that position.

“I’m just worried about the continuity, you build up the real good organization and economic development, and it should be continuous and keeps getting better and better,” Councilman Marabello said. “We have to discuss this a little more.”

Economic development was a cornerstone of his campaign, Mayor Culotta said, followed by public safety. He commented that you cannot have one without the other. He also wants to focus on fiscal transparency which is why council was having this discussion now. Councilman James thanked council for considering keeping the position. Whitfield stated that staff would review and see how they could fund the economic development position.

 

 

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