December 22, 2004

So many people showed up for County Council's last regular meeting of the year that Council president Paul Clark had to delay its start until he could convince the spectators to spectate in shifts. Then those who had come for the two most prominent items on the agenda were told to come back next year as the sponsors reluctantly tabled the respective measures.

Councilman Timothy Sheldon said waiting until Jan. 11 to act on his ordinance to provide $17 million to buy out some houses rendered uninhabitable by flooding and finance some short-term flood-mitigation projects would allow time to arrange for more financial participation by other public agencies.

Council that night will be able to consider an ordinance introduced by Councilwoman Patty Powell which would impose a moratorium on approvals of new development plans or rezonings until county and state authorities "have concurred on a means to resolve the recent flooding problems" or until the end of March, whichever comes first.

It took some rare-for-Council parliamentary maneuvering before Powell was able to set aside until Jan. 25 her ordinance to revise the county building code. She said she wanted to do so to provide "one more opportunity" for the plumbers and laborers unions to resolve the only unsettled issue in the proposed code. Councilman John Cartier objected to further delay in acting on the measure and forced a vote on Powell's motion to table, but Council agreed to the tabling by an eight-to-five margin.

Councilwoman Karen Venezky also tabled, indefinitely and without discussion, a measure which would restrict most personnel actions by future county administrations as their tenures in office come to an end.

In other matters at the session on Dec. 21, Council:

● Eased financial disclosure requirements for members of various boards and commissions.

● Agreed unanimously to spend an additional $900,000 on a paging system for volunteer fire fighters, which will reduce the available balance in the county's general fund by 8%.

● Confirmed members of community review boards for Claymont and Hockessin to advise the Department of Land Use in administering 'hometown' zoning.

Council agreed, in a resolution sponsored by Councilman Robert Weiner, to give the Delaware chapter of the American Red Cross $35,000 to provide "humanitarian assistance" to flood victims. Weiner said that is understood to primarily involve meeting their needs for emergency housng.

The flooding mitigation ordinance "is not quite right and we don't want to do something that is not quite right," Clark said.

He and others agreed that the proposal has come a long way since Sheldon introduced it on Dec. 7. The changes have been enough that County Executive-elect Christopher Coons declared at a meeting of Council's special services committee that he will sign the measure into law after its presumed enactment on Jan. 11. Coons takes office on Jan. 4.

As Delaforum previously reported, Coons had warned Council against ill-conceived and hasty action that would seriously erode the county's financial position. In testimony at the afternoon committee meeting before Council's evening session, he was still on a cautious tack.

Enactment of Sheldon's measure will "set a precedent ... we will be working with for quite some time," Coons said. "New Castle County shouldn't accept this responsibility without a new revenue stream. ... We can't spend this kind of money on short-term projects unless we have a source of new money to pay for it."

A substitute to his original ordinance which Sheldon would have brought before Council if the measure had not been tabled divides a list of 30 proposed projects into four categories.

The first and most immediate involves removal for debris from Red Clay Creek and repairs to several stormwater control facilities at an estimated cost of $3,150,000. That work falls within the county's statutory responsibility.

Buyouts of properties in Glendale, Newkirk Estates and miscellaneous other locations, at an estimated cost of $6.5 million, would be governed by a set of criteria. The houses would have to be declared unsafe by the land use department and constitute a "credible threat to public health or safety." Their owners could not have voluntarily surrender flood insurance or knowingly bought the properties in an area known to be flood prone. The department also would have to certify that there is "no reasonable [and] economically viable alternative" to the buyout.

It was disclosed at the committee meeting that several property owners in Newkirk Estates have refused entry to county code-enforcement inspectors. Only one house in that community has, so far, been 'condemned'. The committee was told that other owners most likely fear that inspection would lead to immediate condemnation and they would be left homeless.

Clark said that applying "really strict standards" to determine eligibility for buyouts would protect Council from an onslaught of requests for such relief. On the other hand, he added, "maybe there are other houses out there that need it." He pointed out that buyout money is limited to acquiring properties and would not be used to cover families' relocation expenses.

The third category consists of four projects which have been declared eligible for a total of $375,000 worth of financing from the state's Twenty-first Century Fund.

The remaining $6,975,000 of the $17 million appropriation would be earmarked for 16 projects for which whole or partial financing by state and other public agencies is being sought. The substitute ordinance provides that work on those projects would proceed only when a majority of the special services committee decides that "suitable contributions" have been received or pledged.

It was evident that a desire to switch projects from the fourth category to the third had a lot to do with postponing action on Sheldon's measure.

State Senator Karen Peterson told the committee meeting that she has brought together 11 legislators who are "interested in being part of the solution," indicating that they would support providing some state financing after the General Assembly convenes in January.

It is uncertain at this point what role a taskforce being set up by Governor Ruth Ann Minner will play in all this. It will be chaired by John Hughes, secretary of natural resources and environmental control, whose department evidently is favorably inclined toward establishing an autonomous stormwater utility. County Councilman William Tansey, chairman of the special services committee, told Delaforum that he does not favor that approach.

The substitute ordinance and supporting resolution disclose publicly the specific sources from which the $17 million in capital funds would be drawn. Previously it was said they would come from deferred parkland and other land acquisitions.

In addition to $10 million now set aside for parkland acquisitions to be determined by the Department of Special Services, there would be $3 million drawn from planned upgrades to the Stoney Creek sewer pump station; $1 million from development of Glasgow regional park, $1 million from improvements to various county facilities; $1 million from security-system upgrades; $950,000 from a paint spray booth at the Conner Building; and $50,000 from the county executive's capital-spending contingency fund. In all cases, the amounts would be made available in fiscal year 2007.

Powell said the moratorium measure she introduced is intended to apply to all development in the county and not just in flood-prone areas. It is based on the understanding that flooding conditions are created as acerbated by development.

In its preamble, the ordinance declares that delaying the processing and approval of development proposals "will enable the state, county, applicable federal agencies and nearby jurisdictions to meet and discuss problems and solutions" while affording the land use department the opportunity to propose revisions to the Uniform Development Code to address flooding and drainage issues.

The building code dispute hinges on one sentence in 66 pages of closely spaced printing. It eliminates a provision in the present code which said only licensed plumbers can connect lateral sewer lines to commercial buildings to the county sewer system. Anyone who is qualified to do the work can hook up residential buildings. The restriction is said to be unconstitutional and has not been enforced. The laborers' union said its members have been doing this work routinely.

While supporting Cartier's effort to prevent tabling the measure, Councilman Penrose Hollins said said Council's role is not to get involved in what amounts to a jurisdictional dispute between labor unions.

With about 75 people affected by the flooding issue and about 90 members of both unions attempting to crowd into the chamber, Clark moved both matters to the head of the agenda, where announcements of intentions to table items are made. He then asked the union people to leave the chamber to make room for those interested in the flooding matter. After that discussion, he asked those people to leave and readmitted the union members.

Two county police officers were called in to assist in the transitions, but there were no disorder in either the movements or in response to Clark's ruling against allowing public comment on the tabling motions.

To avoid a repetition at the Jan. 11 meeting, he requested that Powell agree not to bring the building code revision back until Jan. 25.

Under the revision of a financial disclosure law that had been enacted in September, disclosure of loans is now required only in categories and not specific amounts. Interest rates and terms of loans are required to be disclosed as a means for distinguishing between actual loans and gifts tendered in the guise of loans.

The key provision as the law applies to persons serving on boards and commissions is the granting the Ethics Commission authority to waive provisions of the law if it determines that "the literal application of [its] requirements in a particular case is not necessary to achieve the public purpose of [the law] or would result in undue hardship on any official or employee."

As Delaforum initially reported, Victor Singer, chairman and long-time member of the Planning Board had threatened to resign if he was required to go into detail about has personal finances. Singer and John Brook, of the Historic Review Board, testified at Council's session that they considered the previous requirements to be an undue invasion of their privacy.

The current budget provided $900,000 in grants to fire companies to pay for the paging system, but, it was explained, the system will require more transmission towers that originally anticipated in order to be effective throughout the county. As a result, bids for the system came in higher than expected and the original amount had to be doubled. That the money will come from the county's available surplus was disclosed in a fiscal note to the ordinance and confirmed by chief financial officer Ronald Morris. Most recent reports put the available surplus at $10.8 million.

Confirmed as members of the Hockessin design review advisory board were: Joseph Amon, Steve Borleske, Peg Castorani, Diane Hagerty, Missy Lickle, Matt Minker, Ken Murphy, Robert Price and Connie Toschlog. The Claymont appointees are: Thomas Comitta, John DeCostanzo, Tom DiChristofaro, Vernalee Frey, Alyssa Krill, George Loss, Carolyn Mercandante, Brett Saddler and Carol Sloan.

2004. All rights reserved.

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