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April, 2005

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PUT ON HOLD: The Historic Review Board postponed deciding whether to recommend historic zoning for the Paladin Club condominium complex pending further study. The issue apparently comes down to determining if the entire site deserves protection or if only specific features should be covered. "If we fail to do something to protect the entire property, what further degradation will occur?" member John Brook said at a business meeting on Apr. 27. Chairwoman Barbara Benson said a staff report recommending partial coverage failed to provide enough information on which to base a decision. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

DON'T LIKE IT: County Council weighed in in opposition to President Bush's proposal to include private investment accounts in the Social Security program. A resolution approved on Apr. 26 Council noted that 17% of Delawareans share $1.7 billion of benefits. "Congress should not rush through drastic and damaging changes in Social Security that undermine its family income protections," it declares. Sponsored by George Smiley, it received support from 10 of Council's 11 Democrats. Republican Robert Weiner voted 'present' and William Tansey was absent. Democrat Smiley also was excused from attending the session.

    

BACK-TO-BACK: There may not be two sides to every matter that comes before County Council, but from now on there will be two sides to most of the ordinances and resolutions. They're no longer being printed in a single-sided format. Clerk of Council Betsy Jo Gardner said that nets out to $1.25 cheaper for each 100 two-page texts verses the 200 sheets it would take to print their one-page equivalents. Volume varies session to session, but 125 copies are printed of each of the 15 to 20 documents, which average about six pages each, for distribution to members and the public each bi-weekly session.

    

FEES BEING HIKED: In addition to sewer fees and those charged by the sheriff and clerk of the peace, New Castle County government is looking to boost revenue by increasing other charges for service. The Department of Land Use is proposing an 18% increase in those listed in the building and development codes. If County Council approves an ordinance to be introduced on Apr. 26, it will net an estimated $1 million a year and fees will cover about 49% of the department's operating costs.. Engineering fees have not gone up since 1992; planning and building fees last went up in 1997.

    

It will take about six years after its reported sale has been completed to turn the Brookview Apartments complex into an owner-occupied residential community.

County Councilman Robert Weiner denied at a meeting of the Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee on Apr. 21 that a sale has been "finalized." Delaforum, however, has learned from multiple community sources that Commonwealth Group has contracted with the Clark family to purchase the property within 45 days for $32.5 million. Weiner told the committee that any sale would require the purchaser to enter into a "development agreement" with New Castle County government. Commonwealth did not respond to Delaforum's request for comment.

According to Weiner, designing the project and other preliminaries will take about two years with construction phased over four more. The agreement with the county, he said, would require that a portion of the 950 to 1,200 units be 'affordable' housing and that provision be made for helping present residents relocate. He said about two-thirds of the complex's 637 units are currently occupied by tenants with short-term leases. In return, the developer would be assured necessary county permitting, adequate sewer capacity and could possibly receive state tax incentives.  (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

The area defining Claymont's 'hometown' zoning would be extended to include Brookview. That would make the redevelopment subject to its design standards.

    

MEETING RULED LEGITIMATE:  The special County Council meeting on Jan. 25 at which auditor Robert Hicks was fired was properly called and announced, the attorney general's office has rule. Responding to a complaint from Common Cause of Delaware, deputy attorney general Michael Tupman ruled that "as a result of recent developments" was sufficient to satisfy the requirement in the open meeting law that a reason for holding a special meeting be given. Inserting a reference to the auditor into the posted agenda a few hours before the meeting did not amount to a substantive change, he ruled. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.

    

Fifteen months after Council, at the urging of the previous county administration, defeated a proposed rental code, it has been resurrected and appears almost certain to be enacted.

For County Executive Christopher Coon, that will be not only the first on a short list of initiatives to make it through but also political vindication for nearly two years of tenacity hammering out a consensus by a broad array of organizations with competing economic and social agendas. Appropriately enough, Michael Morton, lawyer for the Delaware Apartment Association, and Christopher White, of Community Legal Aid -- introduced as "two guys who are usually suing each other" -- antiphonally presented the pending ordinance on Apr. 18 to the reassembled taskforce which produced the initial one.

Council president Paul Clark, one of seven co-sponsors joining Robert Weiner on the new measure, asked only that Council receive a similar briefing before it comes to a vote, mainly so its new-members majority won't "be put in a position they're not comfortable with." Charles Baker, general manager, told Delaforum after the meeting that he has been assured that the Department of Land Use will be given the additional resources necessary to enforce the code. Coons told the group that he is adverse to re-opening debate on specific points. "The best way is to just take this piece of legislation and pass it," he said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

The pending measure is the same as the one defeated in 2004 except for one clause in its preamble and insertion of a paragraph inadvertently dropped from the previous one.

    

DOWN TO THE WIRE: The money could run out before its pledge not to seek a higher tax rate ceiling expires, the Brandywine school board was told. If the board does not want to renege on the promise not to hold an operating-funds referendum until spring, 2007, "it is extremely important to monitor the final budgets for fiscal years 2005, 2006 and 2007 since there is very little margin for error," consultant William Bentz said in a report presented to the board on April 18. The report said the projected end-of-year carryover of local money is well below what Red Clay, a comparable district, will have on hand.

State education officials and the General Assembly "are always [more] eager to add new [programs] than to help us pay the costs of what we're already paying for," board president Nancy Doorey said. Chief financial officer David Blowman, who presented Bentz's report, said the district has had to bear most of the increase in energy costs and will be heavily impacted by higher state pension and unemployment insurance rates. The state subsidy for energy, he said, is based on the number of students a district has, not the number of buildings it must heat and light. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

UPWARD TREND CONTINUES:  With personal income tax collections, which account for about a third of the state's revenue, running well ahead of a year ago, the Delaware Economic & Financial Council will add another $35.6 million to its projection for the current fiscal year and $23.5 million to next year's. Corporate income taxes also contributed significantly to the increase over the month-earlier forecast. It will not include an upward adjustment to expected receipts from corporate franchise taxes when it officially makes its forecast on Apr. 18,  but that revenue category also is running strong.

Quoting a Federal Reserve official, council chairman Ken Lewis said the outlook for the national economy is for "a non-inflationary growth path" during the next two to three years. The council's bottom line now shows revenue during the year ending June 30 totaling $2,851.1 million, up 4.2% over a year ago and an expected 3.8% growth rate in the coming fiscal year. Recent reductions in the size of its workforce by M.B.N.A. Bank, the state's largest private employer, is not expected to have more than a relatively minor negative impact, according to David Gregor, of the Department of Finance.

    

All the annual hype about midnight mailing of federal tax returns has us wondering just how many employees the Internal Revenue Service assigns to checking postmarks.

    

A plan to implement the recommendation to establish a statewide autonomous stormwater management organization is being prepared and expected to be ready by Apr. 30.

Stephanie Hansen, a member of the gubernatorial surface water management taskforce, told County Council's special services committee that the goal is to have the necessary legislation enacted before the General Assembly session ends June 30. The Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control will seek $980,000 to cover first-year costs, including $300,000 to pay a consultant to help establish management utilities in each of the three counties. "A large component of this is retrofitting things that don't work," she said.

David Singleton, the county's chief administrative officer, who also served on the taskforce, said the utility could end up being as little as "a desk in the finance office." But Council president Paul Clark said, "It's delusional to think it's not going to require staffing. ... There's going to have to be a large number of people to figure this out." Hansen said that it "probably will take a couple of years before you get a utility up and running" and added that "it will cost more money to manage stormwater in a better way. (CLICK HERE  to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

DOWN TO FIVE: Whittona Burrell has withdrawn as a candidate for election to the Brandywine Board of Education, leaving five candidates still running for the two seats to be vacated. Jeanne Best and Debra Heffernan want to replace David Adkins; and James Garrity, Michael Procak and Olivia Johnson-Harris are seeking Thomas Lapinski's position. Although nominated by districts, school board members are elected at-large. Their terms are five years. They are not paid for their service on the seven-member board. The Brandywine election will be on May 10.

    

MIXED REVIEW: Paladin Club condominium complex doesn't qualify for protection as an historic site, but two buildings and possibly the controversial stone wall that are there do, the Historic Review Board was told. A Department of Land Use staff report presented to the board on Apr. 13 said the community's clubhouse, built in 1904 as a stable, and an 1813 house which the developer, Edgewood Village L.l.c., has said it wants to restore "visually reflect [their] original use." The report was prepared as a basis for the board to decide if it wants to pursue historic zoning.

Roy Jackson, of the Friends of Paladin, told the board it would be missing the point if "concentrates too much on structures" and ignores the entire property's connection with county history and the prominent Ferris and Sellers families. Richard Forsten, its lawyer, did not take a position on historic zoning pending a review of the report, but said Edgewood Village will honor its previous preservation commitments. County Councilman John Cartier told the board that historic zoning "is the only tool we have" to make sure that what remains of the past on the site is preserved. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Councilman Jea Street said he plans to seek an increase in the county's proposed $214.5 million budget to provide money to hire more police officers and paramedics.

He was not specific about by how much he'd like to see the proposed authorized strengths -- about 360 and 100, respectively -- grow, but questioned "how we can deal with all the new development and redevelopment with the same number of people." He received immediate support from some of his colleagues. "We have an obligation to the citizens of the county not only to fill [vacant] positions in a timely manner but to increase the [authorized] number," said William Bell. Karen Venezky asked Street to work out details in collaboration with the executive administration.

The discussion came on Apr. 11 at the first in a series of Council hearings on County Executive Christopher Coons's operating and capital budget requests. The actual budget ordinances are scheduled to be introduced at Council's Apr. 12 session. Police chief David McAlister said that several things are being done to increase the number of officers on the street. Between now and October, for instance, every one in an administrative position will spend two weeks on patrol duty. He promised "fully staffed walking patrols in high crime areas" and a continued presence of mounted police in communities.

Longer range, McAlister said, a strategic plan has been commissioned to relate police strength with population and determine whether it meets national standards.

    

FIRING: Joseph Freebery said he was "shocked" by his firing and intends to sue county government. He said he was summoned to the office of County Executive Christopher Coons late in the afternoon on Apr. 6 and told he had an immediate choice -- retire, resign or be terminated. "I had no idea it was coming," he said. Freebery, who was general manager of the Department of Special Services, had 22 years of service as a county employee and had worked under seven county executives. "All my [job performance] evaluations were either 'good' or 'outstanding'." he told Delaforum.

Now 58, he said he intended to continue working for the county until he reached the traditional retirement age of 65. A resignation, he added, would ostensibly indicate that his departure was voluntary. He said he has retained a lawyer and intends to challenge his ouster as a violation of the merit system and on the grounds that the law enacted by the General Assembly to remove civil service protection from managers is unconstitutional. "They told me they were unhappy with my performance, [but] there was never any [prior] discussion about that. ... It was all political," he said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

DETAILS PROVIDED: Selection of Robert Wasserman to be county auditor was unanimous, according to Council president Paul Clark. Penrose Hollins abstained from the 10-to-zero vote by Council's personnel committee. Wasserman's starting salary will be $86,957. The vote to hire James Boyle as policy director was seven-to-three. John Cartier, Hollins and Timothy Sheldon voted for the other candidate and Jea Street abstained. Boyle will be paid $64,888. Applicants for the job were identified only as 'Candidate A' and 'Candidate B'. William Tansey and Karen Venezky did not attend the meeting on Apr. 4. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Joseph Freebery was "relieved of his duties" as general manager of the county Department of Special Services.

Chief administrative officer David Singleton confirmed that the firing happened on Apr. 6, but no public announcement was made before Delaforum inquired. The brother of former chief administrative officer Sherry Freebery apparently was the first member of the previous county administration's top management to lose his or her job involuntarily. Although the General Assembly took away general managers' civil service protection, Singleton said County Executive Christopher Coons "chose to work with Mr. Freebery for several months, but ultimately decided that a change in leadership was needed."    

Richard Przywara, Coons's chief of staff, was appointed to head the department in an acting capacity until a new general manager is hired. Although the General Assembly enacted legislation restoring the executive's power to appoint and fire top managers at will soon after Coons took office in January, Singleton said the vacancy will be advertised  and "we will welcome applications from interested candidates." Special services is the county's public works agency. Joseph Freebery could not be reached for comment as this article was being prepared.

    

County Council president Paul Clark disclosed in a publicity 'release' that Robert Wasserman has been hired as county auditor.

As Delaforum previously reported, the hiring of a replacement for Robert Hicks, whom County Council had fired for undisclosed reasons, was done anonymously after the selection was made by Council's personnel committee behind closed doors. Hicks declined comment. Also hired, using the same procedure, was James Boyle to be Council's policy director. The moves evidently complete staffing of the expanded Council, which took office in November. The 'release' did not disclose either the salaries of those hired nor the vote on their selection. All Council committees include all 13 members of Council.

According to the 'release', issued by Allison Levine, public information officer in the County Executive Christopher Coons's office, Wasserbach, who until now was Wilmington city auditor, has had 20 years of experience as an internal auditor. Before taking the city government position after running unsuccessfully for election as state auditor he worked for Wilmington Trust bank. Boyle has been housing finance administrator for the Delaware State Housing Authority. He previously worked for Delaware Trust and for the county. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delafourm article.)

    

County Executive Christopher Coons directed county officials and employees to cooperate withthe U.S. attorney during the continuing investigation of the previous administration.

In a memorandum circulated among county offices, Coons said Colm Connolly had requested cooperation during the continuing investigation and prosecution of former Executive Thomas Gordon and administrative officer Sherry Freebery, who are under federal indictment on several corruption charges. They are expected to be brought to trial next autumn. "In response to that request and in the interests of justice, I ask that New Castle County employees fulfill their civic duty and cooperate fully if contacted by the Department of Justice," Coons wrote in the memo.

Coons said his administration has reversed the policy of the former one and will not require employees to notify their supervisors or the county law department before submitting to an interview by the U.S. attorney's staff or Federal Bureau of Investigation agents "during the course of this particular investigation." However, he said, they may consult with a department attorney or seek information from the department and-or the executive office whenever they desire. "Any retaliation against any employee will not be tolerated," he wrote.

    

EMERGENCY PLAN: A 'working group' has been convened to update a comprehensive plan to assure continuity in county government in the event of a major disaster, Joseph Leonetti, coordinator of emergency management, told County Council's public safety committee. He said such a plan was drafted after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon building in 2001, but " it went by the wayside." Only "tweaking it a little bit" is required to revive it and put it into force to comply with a directive from the new county administration, he said.

Given the present climate relative to 'homeland' security, it is unthinkable for "a county our size ... with the number of people we have not to have an emergency operations center" properly equipped and ready to be put into immediate use, Leonetti told the committee on Apr. 5. Key county officials would gather at police headquarters in Minquadale, but lack of space there would hamper their functioning effectively, he said. However, he added, that situation "will be addressed" when the new headquarters facility is built.

     

NEW DIRECTOR APPOINTED: "Anybody with his level of expertise is welcome on the team," county police chief David McAlister said after chief administrative officer David Singleton announced at a meeting of Council's public safety committee that County Executive Christopher Coons had appointed former Wilmington police chief Guy Sapp to be director of public safety. McAlister, who formerly was in charge of all the county's public safety functions, will now report to Sapp. In addition to police, the functions include the paramedic service and 9-1-1 communications.

Sapp retired as Wilmington chief in 1993 after serving on that force for 22 years. Since 2000 he has been on the staff of Family Court. The county directorship was established by County Council while Coons was its president, but not filled by former County Executive Thomas Gordon. Also announced on Apr. 5 was Coons's nomination of Yvonne Gordon, a manager with M.B.N.A. America Bank, to be chief procurement officer. Her appointment requires confirmation by Council; Sapp's does not. Singleton said their salaries have not yet been determined.

     

PERK RELINQUISHED: County Executive Christopher Coons has given up his reserved curbside parking spot in front of the Redding Building. It has been converted into a metered handicapped-parking space. Coons, who lives in Wilmington, alternates between his office in the downtown building, which county government shares with city government, and the county building in New Castle Corporate Commons, spending a greater portion of his time at the suburban site. Wilmington Mayor James Baker, whose only office is downtown, still has his parking spot.

    

HUSH HUSH:  Councilman Timothy Sheldon confirmed that Council's personnel committee hired an auditor and a policy director, but, following recent practice, would not say who they are. "Let them tell their [present] bosses first," he said. On Apr.4, the committee during a closed executive interviewed applicants who literally came in through the back door. They were discretely escorted to an alternate entrance to Council's conference room instead of passing through the public lobby. Meanwhile, controversially fired former auditor Robert Hicks reportedly has landed a job in the private sector. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on April 29, 2005

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