February 8, 2005

Top county officials said they want to know what the public thinks. So they asked. And the public responded at the first of six 'listening campaign' sessions planned for that purpose between now and the presentation of a proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.

About 80 people -- many of whom are involved with civic organizations or otherwise active in their communities -- turned out and several, in a question-and-answer format, aired a litany of such issues as what's to be done about partial destruction of an historic stone wall in the Paladin Club condominium community and what was described as possibly the largest accumulation of toxic dioxin in the world. Along the way, they talked about spending priorities, use of Rockwood park, county code enforcement, relations between county and municipal governments and the firing of the county auditor.

County Executive Christopher Coons and Paul Clark, president of County Council, joined with Councilmen John Cartier and Robert Weiner on Feb. 7 in the new Eighth Council District for the meeting, which ran exactly the two hours for which it was scheduled. The meetings are being held in each of the six new Council districts with the other half of the districts from which they were carved also participating. Cartier now represents the Eighth and Weiner continues representing the Second. which combine to cover Brandywne Hundred.

Richard Przywara, Coons's chief of staff, later told Delafroum that attendance topped his expectation and that he thought the questions elicited "responses that were very helpful to the residents who attended."

The meeting had something of an air of a cross between a traditional town meeting and a political discussion panel. Literally all of the questions showed that the askers had done their homework and were at least generally familiar with their chosen topics. None of the panelists disputed any of the others during the session.

While most of the topics raised dealt, as would be expected, with issues that have been in public view, there were a couple which haven't been widely discussed. Coons, for example, said he plans to set up an arrangement by which county government interacts with officials of incorporated municipalities on matters of common interest. Although such relations with Wilmington, Newark and Middletown have long existed, there has been, at best, limited effort to involve smaller ones. There are four of those -- Arden, Ardentown, Ardencroft and Bellefonte -- in Brandywine Hundred.

Clearly the most pressing concern was what state environmental regulators should do about dioxin-laden material piled up on a 15-acre site adjacent to the Du Pont Co.'s titanium dioxide plant at Edgemoor. The state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control has recommended adopting the plan put forth by the company that the site be permanently covered and its future use severely restricted. That, the department concluded in a preliminary report, would be more "cost-effective" than the alternative of transporting it to a disposal site. Du Pont, according to the report, has been shipping the unsaleable byproduct to an approved site in South Carolina since 2002.

While that is predominantly a state issue, Coons said county government has a definite role to play in notifying the public about what material is in their midst and giving ample warnings in the event of emergencies. "Since Nine-Eleven, industrial plants have been required to prepare plans to respond to terror attacks or industrial accidents, but a lot of that information isn't getting out to first responders or the public," he said.

He added that there was no practical way to alert communities downstream along the Red Clay Creek of an impending flood during the September, 2003, storm which effectively took out most of the Glenville community near Newport. He said that existing technology would permit an alert system which involves automatically turning on television sets and radios in homes and elsewhere in order to spread word of an emergency. "If my T.V. turned on by itself at two in the morning, that would certainly get my attention," he said.

State Representative Diana McWilliams, who attended the meeting, said that she and other state lawmakers are working on a way to "make sure that we're finding out what's going on in heavy industry and getting that out to the public." The Eighth District, she noted, has industrial concentrations at Edgemoor and Claymont.

If the waste pile is simply capped, "15 acres of very valuable land will be rendered useless for future industrial uses," Cartier said. "It will shut off access to the [Delaware] river and leave as a legacy a polluted site."

Rockwood, which was considered a showcase during the administration of County Executive Tom Gordon, is a drain on county finances "until the visitor center makes it possible for the park to be self-sufficient," Weiner said. The recently completed center, he said, is too large to be used for just that purpose, but could become a venue for various educational activities and available to be rented for private functions.

Clark said he favors having the park generate revenue but questioned whether it would be proper for the county to compete with owners in the business of renting facilities and catering to such private events as wedding receptions.

During a general discussion about the county budget, Coons repeated his previous contention that he and the public face a choice between taxes and services. "New Castle County isn't sitting on a pile of money," he said.

By "insisting on calling a thing that is not a surplus a surplus" the previous administration "masked big spending," he said, adding that what actually happened was that accumulated reserves were used to finance deficit spending. "Last year the county went on a $100 million spending spree," he said.

Clark said recent publication of a simplified budget summary listing total revenue and expenditures, prepared by the county finance department, will clarify the financial situation for many people who do not comprehend complex budget documents.

As Delaforum previously reported, the summary showed the county likely to run an expenditures-over-revenue deficit of $9 million in this fiscal year leaving on June 30 unencumbered reserves of $10 million plus a reserve of $54.9 million set aside to preserve the current tax rate. Earlier in the fiscal year, projected unencumbered reserves totaled $10.8 million.

Weiner said Council was "not told exactly the truth" about the county's financial condition. As a result, he said, it was decided "behind close doors" to distribute grants to some social service agencies without any clearly defined application or approval process.

Cartier described code enforcement as "a critical quality-of-life issue in the Eighth District." He proposed establishing an administrative court to handle cases involving violations of building and property codes. As it is now, he said, fines and even responses to citations are haphazardly dealt with.

James Smith, assistant general manager of the Department of Land Use, noted that enforcement of community property deeds is difficult. Even if they have not been allowed to lapse, as many have in older suburbs, enforcement requires civic associations or neighbors to bear the cost of bringing litigation in Court of Chancery. Referring to deed restrictions that are common to several areas, he said that "the more of those we can get into the [Uniform Development] Code the better." Those that are would be subject to county government enforcement.

Cartier called the code as it applies to development "a greenfields code" that does not apply properly to Brandywine Hundred "where the only development we will have is 'in-fill' and redevelopment." He said he would advocate changes in the code, but was not specific about what they might be.

Clark, who previously served on the Board of Adjustment, which judges when exceptions to the code are justified, said it "is one of the most stringent codes out there." He said he agrees with what is considered both state and county policy of encouraging 'in-fill'; that is, filling in with additional development areas that already have adequate sewers, roads and other infrastructure.

The closest the meeting came to controversy was when an attender questioned Hicks's firing. Clark responded that the special session of Council at which that was done was scheduled and conducted in accordance with the law. "It was the desire of the Council that they go forward with a new staff," he said, adding that he could not comment further because the matter is a personnel issue and is in litigation.

Hicks, who attended the meeting in what he described as his role as a civic activist but did not participate in the discussion, had previously indicated that he would consider filing a discrimination suit. But he said nothing in that regard has been done yet. Common Cause of Delaware and Green Delaware have filed a joint request with the attorney general seeking a ruling on whether the Council session complied with the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Coons said that Hicks "served very capablely as auditor while I was [Council] president." However, he repeated a previous comment that he respects the decision about the auditor as a prerogative of County Council just as Council agreed to his realignment of positions in the executive office and did not dispute his successful effort to have state law changes to restore the executive's power to appoint department managers.

Land Use general manager Charles Baker told a group of Paladin Club residents that the department soon will issue a ruling on the wall, adding that "it shall probably be good."


2005. All rights reserved.

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