June  16, 2004

Members of New Castle County Council may find it difficult to take vacation -- at least an uninterrupted vacation -- this year. Business is piling up that could well nibble into its August-off tradition.

Purchase orders to approve, personnel changes to review and budget adjustments to consider are being received as county departments comply with provisions of legislation enacted on an emergency basis. There will be, for instance, at least 92 purchases orders to be approved by resolution at Council's next session. Normally the resolutions refer to two or three and at some of the bi-weekly sessions there is no such resolution on the agenda.

While such resolutions usually are dealt with in undebated 'consent calendar' fashion, Sherry Freebery, the county's chief administrative officer, said there will be a concerted effort made to have Council take action on two significant long-pending and controversial sewer-related issues during the remaining three sessions before the vacation recess is scheduled to begin.

"We're trying very hard to tie up loose ends," she said, adding that the issues are not likely to be dealt with between the time Council returns in September and the November election. Six additional representatives will take seats immediately after they are elected. They, of course, will not be up to speed on the fairly complex issues and their ramifications at that point.

She told a meeting of area civic organization officers on June 15 that the county administration may "ask them not to take their recess" this year.

Coincidentally, Council president Christopher Coons earlier in the day at a meeting of Council's executive committee, requested that his colleagues keep Council's staff informed of their whereabouts during August and, to the extent possible, "make [themselves] available if we need four votes." A majority of the seven-member Council is required as a quorum in order to conduct official business; that also is the number of votes required to approve an ordinance or resolution.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that Council and its staff have arranged for August to be the time when most of the extensive work necessary to remodel their facilities in the Redding Building to accommodate the enlarged Council is scheduled.

State law provides that Council "may" take a month off each year, but does not actually require it to do so. However, no one currently involved in its activities can recall when the vacation recess wasn't taken.

The matters which Freebery and County Executive Tom Gordon have designed as high priority for pre-recess decisions are a pending ordinance to revise -- and, they and the Department of Special Services maintain, rationalize -- the process of providing sanitary-sewer hook-ups in communities now using septic systems; and a yet-to-be-introduced ordinance that would replace impact fees imposed on developers to pay for bringing sewer service into new areas south of the Chesapeake & Delaware with 'capital recovery' fees, which would have the effect of having them bear the full cost, as is now the practice north of the canal.

Neither are new issues, she said, but "we have not been able to get Council to act on them."

To do so now, she acknowledged, is likely to be even more difficult than it might have been at another time. "The only thing Council is focused on now is Tom and me. All they want to do is to clip my wings and to clip Tom's wings," she said.

That was a reference to response to corruption indictments involving herself and Gordon handed up by a federal grand jury. What's more, she and Coons are locked into a primary-election battle to secure the Democratic nomination to succeed Gordon as county executive.

Freebery, who has been publicly outspoken, especially on the hustings, about the charges contained in the indictments, which she denies, made a few peripheral comments about them at the civic  meeting with civic leaders. Gordon, who has not personally commented on the indictments in public, did not attend the June 15 meeting. He had not missed any recent meetings, which are held monthly. Freebery explained that Gordon had work to attend to in his office and had asked her to preside.

She said the septic-elimination proposal is relatively clear-cut. Present law, which goes back to 1990, sets $6,500 as the maximum the county can charge a homeowner. By 2002, according to the preamble of the pending ordinance, the average has increased to $22,242. The septic-elimination program has been suspended since 2002.

The pending ordinance, which is sponsored by Councilman William Tansey and was introduced in April, would require homeowners to pay 70% of the actual cost, with collection of that money enforced by a lien against the property which would have to be satisfied before it could be sold. Contrary to some popular belief, county government would not force a community to convert; that would be done only if initiated by the community and owners of at least 70% of the affected properties agreed, she said. If those conditions were met, however, every property would have to connect and pay for the connection.

Freebery said it was only fair that homeowners pay most of the cost. If their heating and air-conditioning system failed, they would have to pay the full cost for replacing it. In this case, the county would be subsidizing some of the cost through annual sewer charges which all property owners pay.

The 'capital recovery' proposal, which is now in draft form and awaiting a sponsor, is even more equitable, she maintained. Since that is what happens in new developments north of the canal "it is only fair [that] that the cost is borne by developers and passed on to the home buyer" south of the canal, she said. The alternative is requiring taxpayers countywide to pay for extending sewer service to the area of the county experiencing the most exponential development.

Coons's request to the executive committee was general in nature and apparently intended to refer to potential eventualities, not certainties. Members of Council's staff, however, said the need for some kind of Council action during August is more likely than not to occur.

The additional reporting and approving provisions -- for example, reducing from $50,000 to $10,000 the minimum amount covered by a purchase order that now requires approval -- was expected to increase the workload, auditor Robert Hicks said. "We foresaw it was going to happen" when the emergency legislation was being drafted. In his case, he said, it has so far involved "an extra two or three hours a week of work."

The ordinances were intended to give Council greater control over county spending and personnel changes in reaction to the indictments. As Delaforum previously reported, Coons has said he intends to move at Council's next session to have their provisions extended through the rest of 2004. They would otherwise expire at the end of July.

To provide the month off, Council normally simply recesses its final session in July to reconvene in September. Carol Dulin, Council's attorney, said that could be modified this year to recess to 'the call of the chair'. If Coons, or Councilman Penrose Hollins in the capacity of president-pro tem in Coons's absence, did issue such a call, she said, the session would still require seven-days' advance public notice or a plausible explanation of why such notice could not be given.

The staff will continue to function during the recess, but it is still uncertain where it will be able to do so this year with the renovation work going on. That, Dulin said, may require going to temporary quarters either in the Redding building or elsewhere.

2004. All rights reserved.

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