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September 14, 2005


Like anyone coming off a month's vacation, County Council found its 'in-tray' close to overflowing. But some legislative harmony and deft committee work enabled it to clip through a litany of unanimous votes wiping out most of the backlog.

The only indication that  the political juices are still flowing was a brief wrangle over how far in advance to contract for some newspaper advertising.

The flow was so smooth at the Council session on Sept. 13 that ratification of a new three-year labor contract covering the largest bloc of county employees sailed through on the consent agenda. That is a parliamentary device which allows routine uncontroversial matters that no one wants to waste time talking about to be approved, usually unanimously, as a package.

A similar contract, with another union local was ratified as a so-called 'Item J' measure. That is another parliamentary device by which a majority of Council can bring a matter they consider needing immediate action to a vote without its having been publicly advertised in advance and without subjecting it to the usual two-week interval between introduction and passage. The term 'Item J' refers to its listing in the penultimate position on New Castle County Council's agenda.

As Delaforum previously reported, the contracts are with locals of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Local 1607 represents 423 rank-and-file county employees; Local 3109 is the union speaking for 101 professionals and supervisory personnel. Both three-year pacts provide for a 3% pay raise retroactive to Apr. 1, 2005 and subsequent 3.1% increases on the same date in 2006 and 2007.

At a briefing before the plenary session, Council's finance committee was told that there are increases in amount of  co-payments employees will have to pay under the county's self-insured  health care insurance plan. That, according to management negotiator Jill Florey, is the result of a 17% increase in health-care costs this year.

Noting that reaching agreement on health care in labor contracts' benefits package "is always a tough nut to crack," she indicated that may well have been the reason why settlement was not reached earlier. The previous contracts expired last Apr. 1.

Also as previously reported, the contracts contain provision for a new plan under which employees may donate a portion of their unused six leave to a bank from which they can draw up to six months of paid leave in the event of accident or catastrophic illness.

Charlotte Crowell, director of human resources, said that the pay and benefits packages and sick leave plan will be extended to nonunion workers as well. Ordinances revising county's pay plans were introduced for action at Council's next meeting, on Sept. 27.

According to the fiscal note with the ordinances, the Local 1607 contract will cost between  $4,379,910 and $4,510,843 additional over the three years. The additional cost of the Local 3109 contract will be between $1,558,775 and $1,684,099.

Cost was not discussed at the committee meeting.

Unexplained was the fact that the Local 1607 contract was ratified by union members on Aug. 9, but neither the union nor the county administration made any public announcement that that had happened.

"We were just busy, I guess," chief administrative officer David Singleton replied when Delaforum asked him why. He pointed out that County Executive Chris Coons cannot sign a contract without formal authorization from Council -- which is what the ratification resolutions extended -- and therefore the contract process was not complete. "We had to wait until Council got back [from vacation]" for that to happen, he said.

Council president Paul Clark said that he sought 'Item J' treatment for the Local 3109 contract because it is similar in its major terms and he did not want to delay its implementations. Members of that union ratified its pact on Sept. 9.

Still unresolved are expired labor contracts with the Municipal Workers local representing paramedics and two Fraternal Order of Police lodges representing county police officers and employees in the sheriff's office.

Council also enacted an ordinance spelling out the responsibilities of community management associations in providing minor maintenance of stormwater drainage ponds. By doing so the community will qualify for county-provided major repairs if that becomes necessary.

A one-year amnesty permitting the associations to register and forgiving their not maintaining the facilities in the past was approved.

Richard Przywara, general manager of the Special Services Department, told Council's special services committee that 28 ponds in 25 communities regarded as having priority for major repair work have been identified based on a variety of criteria. They were taken from a list of 74 ponds previously identified as needing work.

There will be a multi-year program to be paid for with money from  a $3.3 million state government grant and $900,000 of previously appropriated county money. He estimated that spending on the projects during the current fiscal year will amount to about $2.9 million.

Describing that as a conservative estimate, he added, "I'm worried about what we're going to find when we get in there."

Eleven of the ponds are in Council District 3, which William Tansey represents, and six are in George Smiley's Council District 7.

Councilman Timothy Sheldon questioned why ponds which are relatively new and in affluent communities are first in line for publicly financed work. Przywara replied that the selections reflected, in part, the effect the failed and failing ponds have on downstream communities.

Communities where ponds on the priority list are located are: Limestone Hills, Village of Plum Run, Centennial Village (three ponds), Salem Woods, Hunters Ridge, Winding Bridge, Christiana Green (two ponds), Hockessin Hunt, Fox Fire, Summit View, Woods of Limestone Hills, The Ridge,  Christina Hollow-River Walk, Hockessin Glen East, Village of Tahoe, Westwoods, Stenning Woods, Barley Mill, Cedar Pointe at Wilton, Airport Industrial Park, Forrest Knoll at Wellington Woods, Glasgow Pines, Penn Manor Yorktown, Caravel East and Mendenhall Village.

In action on another significant matter, Council approved a new arrangement for paying police officers for providing off-duty services to community organizations and paying them for doing so.

The only controversy was over a successful  move by Councilwoman Karen Venezky to limit an advertising contract with Community Publications to the six months rather than have it extend for a year. That reduces the cost to $82,800 from $143,520.

She said she wants to force the county administration to come up with a communications plan, which would include how it advertises public meetings and pending matters. The plan, she added, should be "fair and equitable."

Councilman Penrose Hollins said the weekly newspapers which Community Publications produces are circulated free of charge while the larger circulation News Journal requires paid subscriptions. Venezky said Community's papers reach only 40% of the county's population "in the more elite districts."

During a brief discussion at the plenary session, Hollins took his point further by remarking, "This may be perceived as punitive action against a newspaper for doing a good job." That referred to an original proposal in 2004 to cut off advertising from Community Publications which some people alleged was in retaliation for unfavorable coverage  during the administration of former Executive Tom Gordon.

A potentially controversial ordinance to permit use of variable-message signs was withdrawn from consideration by Councilman David Tackett, its sponsor. He did not specify a reason and seemed to  indicate the withdrawal was for an indefinite time.

It was learned that the measure has been opposed by the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, but specific reasons for its opposition have not been widely disclosed. The areawide civic council conducts most of its substantive discussions during closed-door executive committee sessions. It has denied repeated requests from Delaforum to attend those meetings.

In other action, Council approved a resolution amending New Castle County Housing Authority's policy to give preference  to obtain subsidized housing under Section 8 of the federal housing law to households from places declared to be federal disaster areas, provided they come with previously issued 'Section 8' vouchers or lived in public housing.

Also related to the aftereffects of the Gulf Coast storm, Council commended the Coons administration "for its efforts in assisting in this national crisis." The administration was urged "to explore every opportunity to assist the communities and individual devastated by Hurricane Katrina."

2005. All rights reserved.

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Read previous Delaforum article: County reaches agreement with two unions
Read previous Delaforum article: Ailing drainage ponds loom as a mind-boggling problem
Read previous Delaforum article: Probe of police off-duty procedures said to be progressing

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