September 13, 2002

A plan for New Castle County government to 'partner' with community maintenance corporations by offering them some management services free of charge has drawn fire even before it has been publicly announced.

Norman Spector, supervisor of the county's Office of Community Governing, acknowledged in response to a Delaforum inquiry that a 'Maintenance Corporation Voluntary Partnership Initiative', which has been developed over a period of several months, will be officially unveiled on Sept. 28 at a by-invitation gathering of maintenance corporation officers.

"I stress that [participation] is completely voluntary." he said.

Some critics charge, however, that the combination of no fee and the various leverages that county officials have in dealing with community organizations will provide, at least, a strong incentive to sign up. Since the same limited number of volunteers tend to be actively involved both with maintenance corporations and other civic interests, the relationship with public officials inherent in the former is almost certain to affect the latter, they argue.

What's more, they question whether intervention in the affairs of private corporations or spending taxpayer money to do so are legitimate governmental functions. A more fundamental criticism is that the plan is an intrusion by the county administration into the sphere of private and community initiative.

"It's a lousy idea," said state Representative Greg Lavelle, who was a civic activist in both his Brandywine Hundred community and the region before being elected. "It amounts to politicizing the maintenance corporations."

That point also was at the core of a discussion by the steering committee of Common Cause of Delaware, which agreed to look into the propriety of the situation.

Spector takes an opposite view. There is no sinister motive, he said. "We just want to be of help."

Residential developers have been required to establish maintenance corporations in all new subdivisions since the mid-1970s. The practice became especially widespread with the building boom of the 1980s and 1990s, which saw explosive development in such place as the Hockessin, Bear and Glasgow areas.

Homeowners become members of the corporation when they accept the deed to the property at settlement. The initial function of the nonprofit organizations was to care for common open spaces in the community. That mostly conssts of numerous pocket parks where regular county maintenance was considered impractical. But many maintenance corporations have undertaken additional responsibilities, primary among which have been snow removal and architectural review of proposed property improvements.

Money to do that is raised through involuntary assessments on all property owners in the development. Unlike conventional civic association dues, paying the maintenance assessment is a legal obligation comparable to municipal fees in incorporated areas. Fees vary from development to development, ranging widely from $75 to $250 a year. Spector said that the system is supposed to be explained to property purchasers at time of settlement but often is overlooked.

Educating existing homeowners and assuring that newcomers are brought up to speed quickly is one of the objectives of the county initiative, he said.

Keystone of the county plan is to take over the collection of the assessments. Homeowners, who are unaware of the obligatory nature of the assessment, are believed less likely to ignore or contest a bill from county government than they are from an organization led by neighbors in voluntary positions, Spector said. If necessary, he added, the county will assist the maintenance corporation with getting property liens against deadbeats.

He said that it is not unusual for collection rates to drop as low as 80% -- which means that one out of every five residents of the place do not pay -- and that some developments have rates as low as 50%. Where a maintenance corporation is defunct -- for lack of volunteer leadership, for instance -- there may not have been any collections at all.

Katie Boylan, a principal in B.C. Consulting, said that arrangement calls for the county, in effect, to finance the accounts receivable of private corporations. "They'll be using tax dollars to do that," she said.

B.C. Consulting is one of three private management firms which have maintenance corporations for clients. Boylan said the county's plan is not likely to adversely affect her firm "beyond causing confusion to the public," but is something that should be opposed "on principle."

Lavelle agreed. He pointed out that the timing of the requirement for establishing maintenance corporations means that they exist mainly in newer suburbs west and south of Wilmington while there are relatively few in older areas. "Why should we up here (in Brandywine Hundred) have our taxes [used] to specifically benefit other [places]? Clearly, the county is incurring costs to do this," he said.

"Why is the government now entering a private-sector market?" is one of the questions posed by the Common Cause committee.

Jim Weldin, a B.C. Consulting employee who is the Republican candidate running for the Sixth District County Council seat being vacated by Democrat Christopher Roberts, questioned how the administration of County Executive Tom Gordon can assume authority to institute the new system. "Shouldn't there be some review by County Council before getting into the private running of a corporation?" he asked rhetorically.

The rub, according to critics, is that, in exchange for its services, the county office will assume authority for approving, or disapproving, the corporation's budget. Specifically, they say, the intention is to eliminate snow plowing and other things that have nothing to do with open space maintenance from the scope of the corporations' activities.

Spector acknowledged that the county's position is that some corporations have gone too far afield from their initial purpose and responsibility. The county, he pointed out, provides major repairs to stormwater holding ponds and the state reimburses communities for 75% of the cost of snow removal as the result of falls exceeding four inches.

In developments without maintenance corporations local costs are handled by civic associations and the same thing can be done in developments where the corporations come under the county initiative, he said. Civic associations raise money to finance activities but dues are voluntary contributions.

Tom Cahill, the other principal in B.C. Consulting, said that would pose a major problem in some areas. Many residents who now have such things as snow removal included in their assessments will balk when hit up for civic association dues to pay for that while still having to pay an assessment.

Moreover, he said, the scope of maintenance corporation responsibilities -- including everything beyond caring for open space -- are spelled out in deed restrictions which have been previously approved by the county Law Department. "Now they are telling us what they approved isn't correct," he said.

Boylan, Cahill and Weldin are former county employees.

Spector said that, in some cases, a third to a half of a maintenance corporation's budget goes to pay management and lawyer fees. While the county initiative is intended to eliminate that, he added that individual corporations will be able to choose whether they want to keep their current arrangements or move under the county umbrella.

"That will probably cause problems for those who don't ask the right questions," Cahill said. "It might seem that you can get something free that you now pay for."

2002. All rights reserved.

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