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May, 2005

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CONFIRMATION: It should come as no surprise to anyone who has been out on the highway lately, but a survey commissioned by G.M.A.C. Insurance finds that Delaware is home to a lot of dumb drivers. The state ranked 35th -- tied with Kentucky and Mississippi -- in average score on a test administered nationally to 5,000 licensed drivers. General driving habits also were surveyed. Not to feel too bad, though. We outscored Pennsylvania (38th), Maryland and New York (tied for 44th) and, of course, New Jersey (47th). Rhode Island had the worst average score; Oregon the best. One out of 10 people who took the test failed it.


Brandywine School District voters gave virtually unqualified endorsement to the school board and administration by overwhelming approving the final phase of its building renovations plan.

"This is one great community," exclaimed board president Nancy Doorey as she and other officials and supporters watched a decisive victory unfold as referendum votes were counted. The totals showed better

Referendum results

  For Against Margin

Bonds (state formula)

Bonds (with additional district financing)

Athletic facilities

Security, maintenance and energy spending













SOURCE: Department of Elections

than two-thirds of the more than 7,300 people who turned out supporting both borrowing to finance modernization of three schools and building two new ones to replace three deemed to be outmoded as well as proposals to temporarily raise the operations tax rate to finance improvements to athletic facilities and a package of security, maintenance and energy spending.

While, as Delaforum previously reported, approval was anticipated, both the turnout and the margins came close to matching record-setting results of the 2001 capital referendum

which approved the second phase of the three-phase plan. It will provide the district with all up-to-date facilities when completed in 2012. Planning is to get underway during the coming fiscal and academic year, while the second phase is being completed with renovations to Talley Middle and Lombardy Elementary. First project in the third phase will be complete renovation of P.S. du Pont Intermediate in fiscal 2007. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


AWAY WITH THE PILE: Common Cause of Delaware will seek a General Assembly resolution calling on the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control to 'do its duty' and compel the Du Pont Co. to remove, rather than cover, 500 tons of contaminated waste stored near its Edgemoor plant. Lobbyist John Flaherty said that the department is ignoring existing law by not doing so. "If this had happened anywhere else and it was not Du Pont, [the department] would have required it to be moved long ago, he said at a media briefing on May 24.

Ellen Lebowitz, of Green Delaware, said that a pending resolution sponsored by Representative Diana McWilliams calling for the department to arrange for an independent study of the material financed by the company was a "mechanism for further delay." Steve Tindell, president of the Cragmere Civic Association, said the department "already knows what's there -- an illegal landfill on the banks of the Delaware [River] ... in the midst of a populated area." Flaherty said Common Cause has not yet lined up a sponsor for what it calls a "people's resolution." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


County Council unanimously called upon the Pentagon to keep the National Guard base at the county airport and not transfer its complement of C-130 aircraft to units in other states.

The proposal recommended by the federal Base Realignment and Closure Committee would effectively destroy the air component of the state's militia, according to Adjutant General Frank Vavala. It would "take the air out of the Delaware Air National Guard," he testified before the resolution sponsored by Councilman William Tansey, a retired Guard officer, was approved unanimously on May 24. Vavala said the move, termed a 'realignment' by the committee, actually would be a 'closure' and have a "significant impact" on the county and the state. Communities around the nation are similarly seeking reconsideration of the plans.

In this case, the move would result in the loss of 47 full-time military and 101 civilian jobs as well as 485 part-time Guard slots. Transfer of the firefighting unit to Dover Air Base would put an added burden on area volunteer fire companies. A variety of businesses which supply goods and services to both the base and its personnel would suffer. The preamble to the resolution put the overall loss to the county economy at more than $28.7 million annually. Councilman John Cartier said the resolution represented the type of action Council should take on issues which fall outside its jurisdiction but which affect the county.

Twenty of 30 New Castle County employees serving active military duty related to the Iraq War are from the police department. All the employees were recognized for their "great character and bravery" in a separate Council resolution.


SCHOOL EXPANSION: Spanish Gardens Pre-school has filed a plan with the Department of Land Use calling for erection of a 999-square foot addition to an existing garage on a property at the intersection of Barley Mill and Montchanin Roads on the approach to the Tyler McConnell Bridge. Becky Laster said the school, which now operates a bilingual pre-school and kindergarten in Westminster Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, wants to expand into an elementary school. If the expansion is approved, it will be able to acquire the property, which also contains a house, and obtain bank financing, she said.


County Executive Coons ordered a top-to-bottom review looking toward revisions to the county's capital spending plans and more public participation in the decision-making process.

Announced in a press statement on the eve of County Council's expected enactment of an ordinance authorizing a $58.6 million capital budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, it was not immediately clear what, if any, immediate impact the executive order will have on that proposal. The ordinance would authorize borrowing $16.1 million through the sale of long-term bonds to partly finance the budget. Included in that plan are about 50 projects. More than two-thirds of the authorization would cover improvements to and expansion of the sanitary sewer system.

According to the statement, distributed on May 23, a committee headed by chief financial office Michael Strine and consisting of administration officials and Council members will review all active projects and those in the long-range capital program. There has not been any review for more than 10 years and some $200 million worth of authorized projects have not been begun, the statement said. The order also calls for holding public hearings on all budgeted and programmed projects. The statement does not make clear whether that would apply to previously approved ones which survive the review.


AS ORDERED: Wilmington will again commemorate Memorial Day on Memorial Day -- as it has done annually since so ordered by Gen. John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, three years after the end of the Civil War. For several years, the last Monday in May has been designated to pay tribute to the dead in all wars. It just happens to fall on May 30, the traditional date, this year. Many places even choose other days to avoid interfering with what has become a federal and state holiday inaugurating the summer vacation season. (The Wilmington parade on Delaware Avenue will step off at 6 p.m. and end with memorial services at the Soldiers & Sailors Monument at Broom Street.)


CAMERA WORK: Delaware Department of Transportation plans to have all 20 authorized 'red light' cameras installed by June and operational soon afterwards. At present 11 are functioning at selected intersections throughout the state. The cameras videotape vehicles that violate the traffic signal law. Owners of the vehicles are subject to $75 fines. There are working cameras at Naamans Road and Concord Pike, two in Newark and one in Elsmere. Others will be at various intersections along Pulaski Highway, Kirkwood Highway and Du Pont Parkway.


COMPROMISE: Caught in a dilemma between suburbanites who don't like large vehicles cluttering their developments and residents of rural areas in the southern reaches of the county who say that shouldn't bother their more distant neighbors, the Department of Land Use has drawn the line at two acres. Applying different rules based on property size apparently clears the way for Council to enact an extensive revision of the property code which has been pending for a year. But Councilwoman Patty Powell said she won't lift the ordinance off the parliamentary table until her colleagues are all on the same page.

Assistant general manager James Smith told Powell's land use committee on May 17 that a fourth revision of the proposed law was worked out in behind-the-scenes discussions with the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred. The revised code, he said, will allow residents of the smaller properties to park either a large recreational vehicle or a boat trailer, but not both, in a rear or side yard but not on the street or in their driveways. Other code changes will require all backyard swimming pools to be brought into line with fencing standards and require all parked vehicles to be operable and licensed.


A banner income tax season will lead official forecasters to again ratchet up the revenue estimates on which the state's spending plan for the coming fiscal year will be based.

Delaware Economic and Financial Advisory Council on May 16 will add $19.5 million to its month-earlier revenue forecast for the current fiscal year and $74.7 million to the one for the year which begins July 1. That brings estimated revenue to $2,871 million and $3,033 million, respectively, compared to $2,736 million in fiscal 2004. State law requires that the General Assembly use those forecasts for the income side of the budget with spending limited to 98% of that. The council, which has been periodically increasing the forecasts all year, will have another meeting in June before the Assembly takes action.

The Department of Finance said personal income tax receipts, net of refunds, were a whopping 13.5% higher than a year earlier. More significantly, the amount that taxpayers had to ante up with their returns was up 40.6% this year. According to David Gregor, the department's liaison with the council, that indicates a stronger-than-expected economy with higher-income taxpayers and small business owners underestimating their obligations. State tax returns were due by May 2. He said a similar pattern was observed with federal income tax and in other states. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Overall, the council now expects the revenue growth rate to come in at just under 5% this fiscal year followed by a 5.7% gain in fiscal 2006.


SCHOOL PLAN ENDORSED: Newly elected Brandywine school board member Debra Heffernan said her immediate priority is to work to obtain voter approval of the district's proposed capital spending plan, which goes before residents in a referendum to be held on May 24. "It's very important that we muster support" to have all four questions on the ballot approved, she told Delaforum. When she takes her board seat in July her priorities will include establishing 'benchmarks' to measure gains in student achievement and improving the delivery of services to special-education students, she said.

In a separate context, Charles Landry, the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred's education committee chairman, asked attenders at a meeting on May 12 to personally solicit favorable votes at the referendum. After Daniel Bockover, the civic group's president, ruled against its making a public endorsement, Landry, who also serves on the district's referendum committee, said, "If you want to endorse it, do it in the election booth." Brandywine superintendent Bruce Harter told the civic meeting that approval of plan would result in "a lot of improvements for very little money."


OFF AGAIN: The county Board of Adjustment has again put off a hearing on an appeal by Edgewood Village l.l.c. of a Department of Land Use order that it rebuild an historic stone wall in the Paladin Club condominium complex. It was the second postponement and was made shortly before the board's May 12 session. No reason was given other than that it was at the applicant's request. James Jones, president of Friends of Paladin said the civic group, which sought the order, was not notified. "Something is forcing the postponements and we need to know why," he said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


With all your friends and acquaintances agreeing about the conduct of 'other drivers' on Interstate 95, don't you wonder who it is doing all the speeding and tailgating?


Olivia Johnson-Harris intends to be a 'team player' who wants to "keep the momentum of the [district] going in a positive direction" when she joins the Brandywine school board in July.

With 17 years of volunteering for school-related activities as her two children were growing up on her resume, she has a wide range of ideas which she summarized as advocating quality education for all students. She isn't going into her new role advocating a specific personal agenda. "If you do that, you're not going to get anything accomplished for the children," she told Delaforum.  Rather, she wants to see students well prepared for college, but, recognizing that not all will go on to higher education, ready for whatever life after high school holds.

She attributes the margin by which she was elected to her reputation among those active in district affairs. "People know me and know how I am committed to children," she said. The prospect of five years of unpaid service is not daunting she added. "You see [graduates] become productive citizens. That's when I get my reward." Board president Nancy Doorey said Johnson-Harris is "known and respected by a lot of people" and is a welcome addition to the board. Doorey said that the estimated 2% turnout for the election was disappointing, but larger than any other district achieves absent a pending contentious issue. [CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.]

Debra Heffernan, the other winning candidate, did not return Delaforum's telephone calls seeking comment.


BRANDYWINE ELECTION: Olivia Johnson-Harris was elected to the Brandywine Board of Education, taking 57% of the vote in a three-candidate race. Debra Heffernan won the other soon-to-be-vacated board seat by 122 votes. The election drew about 1,800 voters, which is about 2% of the estimated number of district residents eligible to vote. The Department of Elections tallies: Johnson-Harris, 1,037; James Garrity, 515; Michael Procak, 257 of one seat and Heffernan, 972; Jeanne Best, 850 for the other. The new members will be sworn into office, succeeding Thomas Lapinski and David Adkins, in July. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


Federal judges will be able to preside at weddings if the General Assembly enacts a package of changes to the state marriage law. Delaware is the only state where they cannot do so now.

New Castle County clerk of the peace Kenneth Boulden said that, among the changes he is seeking, one would establish a registry of those officials, including clergy, who can perform the ceremony along with conditions they apply, such as pre-marriage counseling. Registrants will have to pay an initial $10 registration fee and $25 for annual renewals. That and the addition of a second room to accommodate larger weddings, along with a general increase in fees which County Council has just approved, are intended to "generate more revenue," he said.

Testifying at a Council budget hearing on May 9, Boulden said another proposal would strike an old law permitting marriage at any age. That, he said, conflicts with a more recent one setting 18 as the minimum age except in situations involving pregnancy, when it is 16 with parental consent. He is seeking elimination of a provision in the law denying 'paupers', alcoholics, 'mental incompetents' and others the right to marry. "We don't ask those questions any more," he said. After the hearing, he told Delaforum that he has no intention of seeking to modify Delaware's ban on so-called same-sex marriage.

Boulden said he neither favors nor opposes a bill pending in the Assembly which would empower state representative John Viola to preside at one specified wedding.


SCHOLARSHIPS: County government has donated $25,000 to the New Castle Volunteer Firemen's Association be used to provide the required 50% match for $1,000 federal college scholarships for qualified high school graduates who volunteer as firefighters or emergency medical personnel. According to a press statement, that will allow for the granting of 40 scholarships. Every high school in the county will be able to nominate two students with at least 100 hours of verifiable participation with the fire service. The statement attributes the donation to County Executive Christopher Coons and members of County Council.


County government allegedly is charging too much for street lights in communities which have them and inappropriately distributing proceeds from the tax which finances them.

In a memorandum filed in Court of Chancery, Richard Korn and Andrew Dal Nogare, the two taxpayers challenging budget reserves policies, cite state law and ask the court to order that more than half of the $675,898 in excess of the actual cost of the street-lights program expected to be accumulated by the end of this fiscal year on June 30 be used to reduce light-tax rates. The rates, which vary up to 12 per $100 of assessed value depending on the style of the lights and the type of pole holding them, have been 'frozen' since 1998 and have netted annual surpluses in the street-light account.

The law, they argue, specifically states that a maximum of 10% of the amount collected may be used to administer the program. The proposed fiscal 2006 budget projects revenue of $3,352,793. That would require that anything above $335,279 be used to reduce the tax rate. Moreover, the memorandum argues, more than half of the money supposedly collected to meet administrative costs would be allocated to several county units, including County Council, which have no role in administrating the program. There is no explanation for any of that in the official budget document pending before Council, they say.

Council authorizes street lights in unincorporated communities when at least half of the property owners petition for them.


KEEP CONTROL: Bellefonte is preparing a comprehensive town plan "as a foundation for zoning and building laws to make sure that Bellefonte becomes what its citizens want," David Wishowsky, president of the town commission, told a recent meeting. The first phase of the process of drafting and adopting a plan was completed with the presentation of the results of a survey of residents. The key finding was that 89% of responders want stricter enforcement of the building and zoning codes in order to maintain the character of the community. The survey had a 20% response rate, about four times higher than expected.

While three out of four responders agreed that the town needs design guidelines for building and renovation, there is little desire to opt into New Castle County's 'hometown' zoning law. Both the town commission and its planning commission are agreed that it is preferable to "maintain control over zoning" and such, commissioner Terry Thompson, who chairs the planning and development committee, said. Residents expressed preference for a restaurant, book store, delicatessen, grocery store and video store to be located in or near the town. Next step, he said, is to hold public workshops to discuss survey results.

Last updated on May 27, 2005

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