February 9, 2005

With budget season just around the proverbial corner, County Council moved to reconstitute its auditor office. In other significant action, Council came down strongly on the side of favoring 'in-filling' existing suburbs and received a proposed ordinance forbidding any future property buy-outs.

The personnel committee agreed unanimously  on Feb. 8 to begin the process of hiring not only a new auditor to succeed the fired Robert Hicks but also someone who will take over the financial advisory function which Hicks had performed.

Because the hiring process takes time and cannot be completed before County Executive Christopher Coons presents a proposed fiscal 2006 budget and Council holds hearings on its components, the committee agreed to accept an offer from the executive branch to 'lend' it a present employee qualified to fill the advisory role. That person will work either full time or part time for Council and not do any auditing.

When an auditor is hired, the committee further agreed, his or her work will be overseen directly by the audit committee and he or she possibly will be based at a location apart from Council's quarters.

Legislation pending before the General Assembly calls for the audit committee to include two Council members and two representatives of the executive administration. It presently has five volunteer members with auditing credentials who do not work for New Castle County government.

As members discussed how to proceed with staffing, Councilman Jea Street said that replacing Hicks on a one-for-one basis would be inadequate. "It's impossible for one person to the do auditing for a $200 million budget," he said.

Councilman Robert Weiner agreed, suggesting that there should be at least one more auditor and possibly more for the office to be "properly staffed so we can assure the taxpayers of New Castle County that we're trying to increase efficiency."

Council president Paul Clark said that a financial risk assessment of county government, which the Council committee recently authorized, will "tell us what is needed" in the way of an auditing staff.  "The auditing function could grow," he said.

It was agreed by consensus that the new advisor position the committee authorized will assume such duties as advising Council on the financial implications of legislation and processing grant applications and other data involving spending.

The committee -- which, like all Council committees, includes every Council member -- also approved filling the vacant position of Council policy director.

An expanded Council, Clark said, needs professional support to help prepare legislation and keep the part-time lawmakers up to speed on issues. Only because he is on temporary leave from his job as a department store manager, was he able to devote the time necessary to craft a complex ordinance like the recently enacted flood mitigation measure, Clark said. "That's not something [a legislative] aide can do," he added.

Councilman Penrose Hollins cast the only 'no' vote on the motion to hire a policy director. He cited the growth that Council's administrative staff has experienced during the past few months. With expansion to 13 members from seven, it was necessary to add six more legislative aides. Also created, he noted, were the positions of deputy clerk, assistant attorney and a paralegal.

In view of that and in light of a shift in emphasis by both Council and the new administration to controlling costs, "we need to determine the need for a policy director," he said. "Are we just going to get more paperwork saying the same things? ... At some point, the court of public opinion will ask whether it will produce benefits."

When it comes to replacing Council attorney Carol Dulin, who has been selected to fill the new position of county solicitor in the executive administration, there appeared to be agreement that the position needs to be ratcheted up a couple of notches on the county pay scale.

"We're not going to be able to [hire someone with necessary qualifications] with the current pricing structure we have," Weiner said. He suggested that a starting salary of up to $150,000 a year would be necessary to compete with the private sector.

Dulin, who has 10 years of county experience, makes about $105,000, which is the top of the salary range for her position on the pay scale.

During its semimonthly plenary session, Clark introduced an ordinance establishing the solicitor position with a salary range of between $82,816 and $128,476 and increasing the salary of the county attorney two levels on the pay scale -- from $78,872-$122,358 to $86,957-$134,900. Consensus at the committee meeting appeared take the $128,000 figure as the amount Council should pay its attorney.

Councilman William Tansey, however, questioned whether going that high is necessary to attract someone in competition with private law firms. "Nobody in the private sector gets 14 paid holidays a year," he said. Noting that County Executive Christopher Coons has called for controlling spending, Tansey said, "Council ought to be at least as fiscally conservative as the administration."

Clark said the higher salary is justified in order to obtain the services of a lawyer with sufficient ability to handle the position. "One bad decision is going to cost us (the county) money," he said.

"I find it ironic that you have to pay someone more than I make to do what I do," Dulin quipped.

Clark's proposed ordinance creating the solicitor position also creates a grade-four executive-assistant position in the county executive's office.

A companion ordinance would transfer presently vacant job positions from the administration department and the Department of Special Services to the executive's office. The solicitor's position, in effect, replaces a budgeted but unfilled position of assistant county attorney.

Net effect of all that juggling is to keep unchanged in the present budget both the number of authorized position and, apparently, the payroll's bottom line.. A fiscal note to one of the ordinances cautions, however, that starting salaries for the positions involved will determine if the executive's budget will have to be increased for the remainder of this fiscal year and what impact creation of the positions will have on future budgets.

The positions are all appointive. Gregg Wilson, a deputy state attorney general, has been appointed county attorney. Both he and Dulin take their new jobs on Mar. 1.

The pro-'in-fill' stance was taken as Council voted  to reject an ordinance to rezone Sedgley Farms to require minimum lot sizes of 40,000 square feet instead of the present 15,000 square feet. As Delaforum previously reported, the community's civic association and some residents sought the change to block subdivision of existing lots to permit construction of additional houses.

'In-fill' is a term which refers to building additional structures in established areas which already have such necessary infrastructure as sewers and roads. It is seen as an alternative to developing open or nearly open land.

Residents who opposed the rezoning, including one who is a builder and is doing that, said it would unconstitutionally violate their property rights by denying them the opportunity to reap the most economic value from their property.

In recommending approval of rezoning, the Department of Land Use acknowledged that it was unprecedented to change the zoning classification of a long-established and essentially fully developed community. Sedgley Farms was established in the early 1940s and has been zoned to require its present maximum lot size since New Castle County instituted zoning in 1954.

Before Council voted to reject his department's recommendation by a nine-to-one margin, with two absent and Clark abstaining because his wife, Pam Scott, was the lawyer representing the builder, Charles Baker testified that the department's planning staff had difficulty deciding whether to follow established policy of encouraging 'in-fill' in that particular circumstance. Countering that policy, he said, was one of preserving the 'character of the neighborhood'.

What decided the issue, he said, was the wide variations in lot sizes in Sedgley Farms. It is unlikely there would be any comparable situations in the county, he added.

Peter Wilder, president of the civic association, repeated testimony he had previously given before Council's land use committee that a clear majority of residents favored rezoning. He was supported by others who testified, including resident Carolyn Watjen who said 'in-filling' was "not meant to destroy land that people already own."

Tansey, who sponsored the rezoning ordinance and was the only Council member who voted to rezone, said the issue and the controversy it roused was "all about the money."

Speaking for her client, Ron Stevens, Scott testified that support for rezoning was not as strong as Wilder claimed, that only about six or so lots could be subdivided within the present classification and that rezoning an existing community would set a bad precedent.

Glenn Prechtl, president of The Redevelopment Company L.L.C., who does not live in Sedgley Farms, said that rezoning would "deny people economic viability in their property." He said his firm has identified several other communities in the county where 'in-filling' would be practical, but did not identify them.

Weiner said that the additional density which results from 'in-filling' "is not an evil in itself." Instead, "quality of design" of what is placed as a result is the determining factor. "Public policy promotes 'in-fill' development. I don't see how the land use department could come up with its recommendation," he said.

The county Planning Board was unable to muster sufficient member votes to come up with a recommendation either for or against rezoning.

Earlier in the session, Tansey agreed to table an ordinance he is sponsoring to authorize condemnation of a section of a residential property on Emerald Ridge Road to permit construction and later maintenance of a sewer line after the owner, Lyn Walters, testified that it would seriously harm his backyard.

What tipped the balance in that situation was that the Department of Special Services acknowledged that it had let a contract to construct the sewer line before seeking Council authorization to acquire the necessary property. It was also open to question whether there had been reasonable consideration given to alternatives to running it through a residential property over the objections of the owner.

Tansey also introduced the measure which would flatly prohibit county government from buying or participating in the purchase of flood-damaged houses. An exception would permit acquiring flood-prone property for approved stormwater and drainage projects.

Stated purpose of the ordinance is to prevent setting "a precedent for fiscal spending that is outside the customary boundaries of county responsibility or to use funds [provided] by all taxpayers for the benefit of a few."

The preamble to the measure notes that only $3 million of the $17 million recently authorized to provide assistance to flood victims of the September, 2004, storm and to finance related projects is intended to meet the county's obligation to maintain flows in non-tidal streams. The preamble goes on to say that none of the $15 million the county put up to participate in a buyout of victims of the September, 2003, storm in Glenville had to do with meeting obligations.

Earlier in the day, projects coordinator Mike Harmer told Council's special services committee, which Tansey chairs, that the 15 buyouts in Glendale and Newkirk Estates which were authorized by the recent ordinance are scheduled to go to settlement beginning Feb. 25. Harmer said an additional 39 property owners in various locations have applied for buyouts since that ordinance was enacted.

He said that 10 private contractors and one county work crew are clearing Red Clay Creek of debris. He presented a timetable which calls for completion of the 34 authorized drainage and flood-abatement projects by the end of 2006. Those with the highest priorities are scheduled for completion by mid-year, 2005.

Council authorized county police to use $39,600 of grant money from the state's Special Law Enforcement Assistance Fund to acquire 36 police stun guns produced by Scotsdale, Ariz.-based Taser International. The weapons are intended to be non-lethal.

County police chief David McAllister told the finance committee that the guns use 50,000 volts of electricity to "override the nervous system" of someone violently resisting arrest "so they can't fight any more." He said there are "no lingering effects" from the jolt and that some of the county officers who have been trained in their use have voluntarily opted to be subjected to it.

Their use, he said, would be limited to situations where policy would justify use of a baton. The guns, he said, are in use in many jurisdictions around the nation and "add considerably to the safety of officers."

2005. All rights reserved.

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