Dover city council members have distributed city money to 38 separate agencies over the past 14 months without any formal guidance on who receives the cash or what it is used for.
Beginning July 1, 2016, council allocated $25,000 in its budget as a fund each member could use for projects on behalf of their constituents.
While other towns and cities have ways of disbursing cash to nonprofits or for small, resident-requested projects, it’s generally done with the consensus of the full council. Only Wilmington allows individual council members to control where their discretionary money goes, and that system has come under fire in recent months.
As of September, however, Dover’s council has not set formal guidelines on how these funds are spent.
Fund established in 2016
Council President Tim Slavin requested $25,000 for discretionary spending during council’s FY 2016 budget hearings. The program has continued into the current fiscal year. The $25,000 is divided among four council districts, each receiving $5,000 equally split between each district’s two council members. As the at-large councilman, Slavin receives $5,000.
During its first year, council reduced the funding by $3,000, making up for reductions to the African American Festival. Of the remaining $22,000, council members distributed $20,463.55; the rest, $1,536.45, was unspent and returned to the city coffers.
Five councilmen, including former members James Hutchison and James Hosfelt, distributed their entire allowance between by June 30, 2017. Members William F. Hare, Scott W. Cole and Fred A. Neil ended the year with money left over.
Since the start of the new fiscal year July 1, four councilmen have distributed part of their allowances. Public records in the city clerk’s office show as of August, $3,418.06 has been spent from the budget approved for the coming fiscal year.
Brian E. Lewis and Roy Sudler Jr. still hold their full $2,500, as do council newcomers Tanner Wm. Polce and Matthew J. Lindell.
Documentation is required
Speaking during budget hearings in May 2016, Slavin said he wanted discretionary funding available so council members could contribute something to small projects in their districts.
At the time, former City Manager Scott Koenig told the group rules had to be written on how they should go about requesting the money. It would be up to the council to set up criteria for using the money, Slavin later said.
Council members were asked to send suggestions about how the money should be used, with Slavin noting those ideas should either become a city policy or set down in the city’s Code of Ordinances.
However, that hasn’t happened, so acting City Manager Donna Mitchell sent them some general suggestions.
“It’s not something they approved, just my recommended procedures,” she said. “I gave them this guideline because there was no defining criteria.”
The program is tracked by the city clerk, with the city manager’s office acting as watchdog. In one case Mitchell turned back a request because it was from a city agency for something that should have been included in its budget.
“I think if there was something that really stuck out, we would bring it to their attention,” she said.
The requests are documented by invoices or similar means and payments made via check or city credit card.
A check with clerks and managers in Middletown, Georgetown, Milford and Newark showed those municipalities have a means for councilmembers to make grants, but in each they are subject to higher review and approval.
The same is true in Kent County.
“We do not set up separate discretionary funds for individual commissioners,” county Administrator Michael Petit deMange noted. There are four separate funds from which money may be drawn, he said.
“Expenditures from any of these funds requires Levy Court approval, i.e., passage of a motion to approve,” he said.
At least three council members, including Fourth District Councilman David Anderson, seem to feel written statutes are unnecessary.
“We are governed under city ethics rules and [the] city charter which would prohibit us or our families from receiving the money,” Anderson said. The monthly reports from the city clerk sufficiently document those payments, he said.
Cole also believes the rules are sufficient and council relies on Mitchell and her staff to ensure no ethical problems arise.
Neil said he returned money last year.
“I don’t believe in spending taxpayers’ money that will not pay dividends in the short or long run,” he said.
Despite Slavin’s stated intent to target each councilman’s discretionary funds for his specific district, that has not always been the case.
Anderson said the restriction is “bureaucratic nonsense,” saying his $350 contribution to People’s Place in Milford -- the money was used to repair the group’s veterans van -- was proper because many homeless vets come from the Fourth District.
Cole said his contributions to schools in the Capital School District were not at odds with his job at the Delaware State Education Association.
“I have tried to steer clear of any conflict as I have looked to help with special projects from different sections of my district,” he said. “I do not represent any groups on the Capital School District for my DSEA job.”
Councilman Roy Sudler Jr. of the Fourth District, long a champion of the homeless, made a $1,000 donation to Kent County’s Victory Church for homelessness expenses, and $500 to the soup kitchen at Mt. Zion AME Church. Sudler did not respond to queries about those donations.