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September, 2005

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DISGUISES DESIRED:  If a wireless communications company cannot find an existing tower or other suitable structure on which to hang signal-relay gear within a mile of a proposed new installation, it will have to put up a tower or pole that doesn't look like one. An ordinance before County Council would require that the new support structure "screens or camouflages the presence of the antennas and support structure from public view in a manner appropriate to the site's context and surrounding environment." The measure suggests it could look like a tree, clock tower, flagpole or steeple -- or anything else except a cell-phone tower.

    

County residents theoretically could be facing a whopping 36.5% increase in their property tax in2009, but it's probably not going to happen.

Chief financial officer Michael Strine said fiscal and political wisdom dictate "beginning to take action now" to avoid that worst-case scenario. "If we get there, we have a significant problem," he said, referring to the fact that reserves, other than the emergency 'rainy day' fund, will run out three fiscal years hence. Without providing details, he indicated at a Council finance committee meeting on Sept. 28 that a financial course correction is likely in the budgeting cycle that is now beginning. County Executive Chris Coons will present the first from-scratch budget proposal of his administration in January.

Strine told the committee that both revenues and expenditures during the first two months of fiscal 2006 were $1.8 million less than budgeted. On a longer-range basis, he said that projected annual revenue growth  has been reduced -- from 5% to 3% for real estate transfer tax and from 4% to 3% in other revenue streams. Personnel costs are expected to grow by 5% and other spending by 2% a year. The committee was told that pay raises negotiated with county unions and extended to nonunion employees will cost an additional $2.2 million this year and $9.9 million over the three-year life of the contracts.

    

DONATION: The Delmarva Red Cross chapter will not have to return the $6,680 that it did not have to spend on county-financed emergency relief for local victims of the September, 2004, storm. Council agreed unanimously that the money could be used instead "in any manner" which the chapter deems appropriate. Councilman George Smiley noted that the Red Cross was on the scenes "even before the fire engines left" to assist families burned out by two recent house fires in his district. Council was told that  the flow of private donations to Gulf Coast relief is having a serious adverse impact on local charities' funds raising.

    

STUN GUNS:  County police will add 36 advanced-model Taser International stun guns to their arsenal, doubling the number of the non-lethal weapons in use. Council unanimously approved spending a  $39,639    

    

federal law enforcement assistance grant after public safety director Guy Sapp told the finance committee that the weapons have been effective and there have been "no indication of [their] misuse." They are intended to be used to temporarily  immobilize violently resisting suspects so they can be taken into custody without injury to  themselves, the arresting officers or bystanders.

Referencing reports from other jurisdictions that the guns have caused serious injuries or, in at least one case, death, Sapp said that use of "almost any type of force" can have those unintended consequences. He said that county officers undergo training and must be certified as qualified to use the weapons. "We don't just hand them out at roll call," he said. He said he did not know how many times or in what specific circumstances they have been used. However, he added, "They are well worth the money. ... Police officers need as many options as we can fit on their belts."

    

REASONS WHY: The Council of Civic Associations of Brandywine Hundred said the reasons that it opposes amending the county sign code to permit the use of electronically controlled variable message signs "include visual pollution, undesirable quality of life and aesthetic impacts on streets, highways and communities, safety factors created by the proliferation of often changing and unusual marketing messages that [such signs] enable among other currently identified and as yet unidentified unwelcome and problematic impacts." An ordinance to allow the signs has been tabled in County Council since June.

The civic group's position was contained in a resolution adopted by its executive committee which called for setting up a "working group of community, business and government stakeholders to study the need for, and eventual form and terms of, any future ordinance." The resolution said the genesis of the ordinance sponsored by Councilman David Tackett was a desire by some schools to use the signs and "the speculative possibility of a constitutional challenge" to the county's current sign laws. The civic council's executive committee meets behind closed doors, so there is no indication of the nature of discussion preceding adoption of the position.

    

Proposing to engage a consultant to study special education in the Brandywine School District was favorably received by the school board,  but hiring an administrator to oversee that area was not.

Superintendent Bruce Harter also proposed establishing a special education taskforce or committee and producing a quarterly newsletter as ways to maintain contact and communicate with concerned parents. The ideas were his initial response to complaints from the Brandywine Special Needs Parent-Teacher Association about the district's program. The board was not expected to take action on the proposals at its meeting on Sept. 26. But board president Craig Gilbert appointed Debra Heffernan and Olivia Johnson-Harris to be liaisons with the committee. Heffernan previously has been active with the parents' organization.

Harter denied an allegation that the district was violating the law in staffing classes with special needs students. He said the allegation was the result of "a fundamental misunderstanding" of how the state formula for financing teachers and aides works. A specific situation cited at a previous meeting evidently has been resolved by assigning an aide to that class. "We want more support in the classroom. I'm not sure how adding another [supervisor] is going to get more support in the classroom," Heffernan said. Harter said that would be the best way "to leverage ... the woefully few dollars available in our budget" in order to  make improvements. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum artice.)

While thanking Harter and the board for their initial response to concerns that have been raised, parent Peter Bilous said, "I hope it's all not just talk."

    

TRY AGAIN: An effort is underway to further encourage redevelopment of unused or underused properties through another modification of the county's Unified  Development Code. Existing "redevelopment ordinances have been helpful, but I don't think they've done what we had in mind for them to do," Councilwoman Karen Venezky said. She commented at a meeting of County Council's economic development committee on Sept. 27 at which a general outline of the direction which present thinking is taking was presented by Stephanie Hansen, a private lawyer who specializes in land use matters.

Although both state and county government policies favor putting new ventures on old sites, there is not a single approach. So-called 'brownfields' which have real or potential environmental problems are handled differently from properties in line  for redevelopment. One difficulty is dealing with back taxes. Often, she said, that debt is larger than the value of the property and "nobody wants to take it." She said she has been contacted by potential redevelopers who would be interested in acquiring a problem property, but the state environmental control department evidently has reneged on producing a list of ones which might  be available.

    

TRYING TO HIDE: The number of vehicles with those plastic shields over the license plate is growing,

Delaware Department of Transportation spokesman Michael Williams acknowledged. But, he said, so far there is "not a dramatic number of problems" with what are known in the trade as 'smear plates'. The purpose for them, of course, is to avoid being fingered by a camera at the toll gate or monitoring traffic signals. The only time that would be a problem, of course, is if the driver is breaking the law. It's also against the law to obscure a license plate. However, there does not seem to be

any great push to  enforce that law.

    

Any resident willing to commit to attending  a series of 10 monthly meetings can have a direct voice in setting the parameters for  the future of New Castle County.

The Department of Land Use has scoped a process by which the coming revision of the county's comprehensive plan will  have the most extensive amount of public participation of any of  the five-year updating cycles since 1988. "It's been almost 20 years since we've involved the whole community," said land use general manager Charles Baker. Although a cast of civic activists who have been involved in county affairs has been invited to form the nucleus of an advisory committee, he said there is "a need for new blood" in what will likely also be the most extensive revision of the plan.

Baker said the committee will be divided into four subcommittee to gather and work through ideas. Their charges will involve future land use, infrastructure and services, community character, and the development and building review process. Their task will be to provide a framework from which the land use staff will write the detailed plan, which then will be the subject of public hearings before adoption by County Council in 2007. The inaugural meeting of the committee, which is open to the general public, will be in the Rockwood Park visitors center on Sept. 26 between 5 and 9 p.m.

    

IMPROVEMENTS BEING MADE: Commonwealth Group, the new owner and manager of the Brookview apartment complex, is "aggressively moving to correct a lot of problems," according to County Councilman John Cartier. He said tenants have been moved from the more problematic units to others while repairs are underway. Meanwhile, the complex's tenants council has begun having its members trained to conduct a survey of the approximately 450 households to determine their desires regarding possible relocation. "There will be a [specific] transition plan for each and every family, Cartier said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Illustrations courtesy of Commonwealth Group

What it'll look like. This is a schematic (left illustration) of the proposed redevelopment of Brookview. As Delaforum has previously reported, the main entrance to the community is to be a 'boulevard' formed by extending Manor Avenue (the lower part of the colored area on the schematic.) Green Street would be widened into a parkway (upper center of the rendering) ending in a combination park and stormwater management area. That open-space tract would be swapped for a portion of Woodshaven-Kruse Park (upper right) on which a multi-unit condominium would be built. The artist's conception (right illustration) shows the proposed main entrance as seen from the existing Manor Avenue east of Philadelphia Pike.

    

County Council members attending a committee meeting were suddenly jolted to learn that the county has 'lust zones'. Before anyone could call former President Jimmy Carter, it was explained that 'lust' also is an acronym for 'leaking underground storage tanks' and the zone is their immediate vicinity.

    

Wawa Inc. has agreed to submit a revised landscape plan for its Claymont outlet to the Department of Land Use by Oct. 7 as an alternative to replacing some  of the brick veneer on the building.

Planner Jennifer Leister told the Claymont Design Review Committee that the county will require the firm to obtain community agreement before being permitted to proceed with the plan. The committee probably will be the vehicle for determining if there is agreement although it has no official jurisdiction in the matter. According to the approved plan, the brickwork was to have been all red. Instead, it came out a combination of red and 'silvestone', an off-white shade. The company blamed an "honest mistake." Leister said that "'if the community is split [over the plan], they probably will have to take down the bricks."

At the meeting on Sept. 15, committee member Thomas Comitta said that he advised Wawa to "paint that bright white fence" along the perimeter of the property. He said he did so in response to a request from Wawa's lawyer, Wendie Stabler, to give an opinion on the appearance of the property. Comitta is a professional urban planner. The committee considered, but did not act upon, a resolution requesting the company to "tone down" the fence. Committee chairman John DiCostanza said the request "might be viewed as being antagonistic" in light of the controversy over the bricks. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

OBSOLETE DESIGNATION: Delaware's oft-cited claim to be the "corporate capital" of the nation may be outdated. According to Rick Geisenberger, assistant secretary of state, only about 30% of the businesses chartered here are corporations. The rest of them are limited liability corporations, limited liability partnerships or the like. To accommodate that with a dash of inclusive political correctness, he has proposed that the state collect 'business entity fees'  instead of 'corporate fees'. The alternative business organizations "originally were subsidiaries of big multinational corporations, [but] now everybody's doing it." he explained.

    

"When they come, we'll be ready to receive them; we'll have services ready for them," according to David Singleton, the county's chief administrative officer.

He told Council's special services committee that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will select about 28 families to accept temporary living arrangements brokered by county government and provide transportation for them. Meanwhile, he said, the county and human services providers it has lined up are willing to work with refuges from Hurricane Katrina who have come to northern Delaware on their own to join relatives or friends. While county officialdom joined in the national effort to succor flood victims, government workers have done their bit.

New Castle County Police patrol cars, now sporting the New Orleans Police logo, are prepared for shipment to the beleaguered Louisiana city. The cars went with filled gasoline tanks, donated gifts for the officers who will use them and messages from their Delaware colleagues. County Executive Chris Coons (lower left photo) and Councilman George Smiley (lower right photo) helped to load the trunks.

A caravan of trucks provided by Fleet Car Carriers and sponsored by Daimler Chrysler's Newark plant left on Sept. 13 with 32 patrol cars the county is donating to the New Orleans Police Department. The 1997-model Fords were partly prepared for auction, but county workers on double shifts reversed course and reinstalled police accouterments. With upwards of 100,000 miles on their odometers, the cars were completely reconditioned for an additional year or two of service. While that was going on, county employees, acting on their own,  purchased things like boots, flashlights and other personal gear  to donate to the officers. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

No one has yet tallied the cost, but special services  general manager Richard Przywara estimated it  was at least  $50,000 of in-kind public contribution and several thousand dollars in personal out-of-pocket donations by individuals.

    

BONDS SOLD: Merrill Lynch was successful bidder for $132 million tax-exempt state bonds. Interest rates for the securities, which will be redeemed serially over 20 years, range between 3.5% and 5%. Net cost  to the state will be 3.769%, which Stephanie Scola, director of bond finance, said is commensurate with Delaware's triple-A bond rating. She said it was decided that the state will not sell bonds from this issue at retail. That practice, begun last January, will be limited to once a year because demand exceeds the 20% limit on such sales. "We would be forced to reject a large percentage of retail orders ... [and] distribution costs are higher, she said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

New Castle County government has come to terms with two unions which represent the largest bloc of its employees. Both three-year contracts call for a 3% raise this year and 3.1% in the next two years.

The agenda for County Council's Sept. 13 meeting revealed that Local 1607 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees  has ratified a pact that will increase wages and benefits costs this year by $132,000. Charlotte Crowe1l, chief 'human resources' officer, told  a meeting of Council's executive committee on Sept. 12 that Local 3109 also has approved a contract with similar terms. Its cost was not immediately available. The locals represent 423 and 101 employees, respectively. Council has to authorize County Executive Christopher Coons to sign the contracts and also has to adopt ordinances to pay for them.

A  new feature in both contracts -- which Crowell told Delaforum will be extended to all county employees -- is a 'sick leave bank'. Employees with two or more years of service will be able to donate up to 12 days of unused sick days per year. They then will be eligible to draw up to six months of paid leave they do not have to 'pay back'  in the event of  catastrophic illness or accident. Employees earn a day of sick leave for every month they work. They are allowed to cash in only half of accumulated leave when they retire or leave their jobs. Crowell said Local 1607 "came up with the idea' to establish the plan. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Still to be completed are replacements for expired contracts with unions that represent county police officers, sheriff's deputies and paramedics.

    

Help that New Castle County is providing to refugees from the Gulf Coast will not adversely affect local people in need of help, County Council's executive committee was told.

Rent subsidies provided under Section 108 of the federal housing law are available only those who bring with them already approved vouchers, according to Anne Farley, general manager of the Department of Community Services. There is  a backlog of 1,700 local people seeking those subsidies and the list is closed to new applicants. Farley said there is no shortage of rental units willing to accept the vouchers, but not enough federal money available to pay for them. Councilman Penrose Hollins said that the Gulf disaster emergency is national in scope and New Castle County cannot "exempt ourselves from lending a helping hand."

Discussion at the committee meeting on Sept. 12 disclosed that the unopened hotel at the Interstate 95-Basin Road interchange cannot be used to temporarily house Hurricane Katrina evacuees because it is "structurally unsound." Council president Paul Clark said problems involve fire protection and "a mold situation." Councilman George Smiley said that chronic flooding of Airport Road adjacent to the hotel and nearby DuRoss Heights is the result of a fallen tree blocking Nonesuch Creek, a Christina River tributary. A Delaware Department of Transportation spokesman previously told Delaforum the source of the problem was not known. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Delaware Transit Corp. plans to establish a new bus route offering weekday service among nine stops along Naamans Road between Brandywine Town Center and Tristate Mall beginning Dec. 5. The bus also would connect with commuter service at the Claymont train station.

    

HELP OFFERED: New Castle County government has offered the Federal Emergency Management Agency four police officers, two emergency communications officers and an emergency management official for deployment to the ravaged Gulf Coast. Also to be made available through the National Association of Counties will be up to 30 used county police cars which originally were slated to be sold at auction. County Executive Christopher Coons said in a press statement that he is attempting to find housing for at least 25 refugee families. He is trying to balance that support with continuing to meet local needs, the statement said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

LOYAL FANS:  Who said Delawareans are sunshine patriots? Although  the While the Wilmington Blue Rocks spent most of their just-ended  baseball season in the Carolina League cellar, they led the league at the box office. The team reported selling 322,287 tickets this year, up from 320,788 in 2004 and well ahead of the Frederick Keys, who won the northern division pennant in the second half of the season, with 275,663. Average attendance dipped slightly -- to 4,810 from 4,860 a year ago -- with the Rocks playing 67 home games, one more than a year ago. This was the team's first season as a Boston Red Sox farm club.

    

STATE SUPPORTS '3.319' ORDINANCE: Herb Inden, principal planner, told the county Planning Board that the state Planning Council supports passage of a pending ordinance which would eliminate the need for an additional public hearing for development plans which propose clustering buildings to create large blocs of open space. The measure also would require that all major development plans go before an administrative hearing during the preliminary stage of the land use approval process. County Council president Paul Clark said the ordinance would encourage more open space development.

At a hearing before the Planning Board on Sept. 6, the ordinance drew fire from representatives of some civic organizations, largely because it would limit Council to either approving a development plan which meets the technical requirements of the Unified Development Code or sending it back the Department of Land Use for modification. Council could not reject the plan. "Many of the problems we've had in the past is because Council had a vote," Clark testified. "Many people do not want to see plans approved." Civic activist David Carter said the issue should be resolved as part of the coming revision of the county's comprehensive plan. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

END OF SUMMER:

The Ardens bade farewell to the summer season in the traditional way. With almost ideal weather conditions, the 98th annual fair, sponsored by the Arden Club attracted a large crowd.

    

STILL HIGHLY RATED: When Delaware goes to the bond market on Sept. 8 with a $132 million bond issue,the securities will carry the usual highest ratings from the three major Wall Street rating firms. Triple A is usual for Delaware. This us the 10th consecutive time since spring, 2000, that  is has been awarded. It is unusual, however, in that only six states currently hold that grade. Standard & Poor's cited Delaware's "long history of strong financial management, including long-range planning, prudent debt policies and conservative budget practices." Proceeds from the bonds sale will go mostly to finance school construction.

    

ABOUT TO BE RECOVERED:

Having scored with the restoration of Smith Bridge over the Brandywine a few years ago, Delaware Department of Transportation is going to go for two in a row and redo the Ashland Bridge, which carries Barley Mill Road over Red Clay Creek. The existing structure will be torn down to its lattice truss and deck-support beams. A new timber deck, siding and roof will then be built, giving the bridge much the same appearance it now has. Unlike most other states where covered bridges are essentially intended as tourist attractions, the few remaining ones in Delaware are for normal secondary-road traffic. In this case, the single-lane roadway will not be widened. DelDOT will host a public workshop in the project on Sept. 6 between 4 and 7 p.m. at the Ashland Nature Center. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

A Natural Resources Department committee hopes to sell legislators and the general public on the notion that there's a better way to handle yard waste than dumping it in a landfill.

"We have an uphill climb," James Werner, director of the Division of Air and Waste Management, told an organizational meeting on Aug. 31. "We have a bill, but the bill is not selling." Under provisions of a measure waiting for the General Assembly when it reconvenes in January, landfills will not  be permitted to accept leaves, grass clippings and most other forms of domestic vegetation beginning in 2007. That is the only mandatory part of the proposed law which "establishes a framework for a statewide residential curbside recycling system." Yard waste accounts for about a fourth of recyclable material generated by Delaware households.

Lee Ann Walling, Governor Ruth Ann Minner's policy advisor, told the committee that there is need to demonstrate the practicality of a yard-waste ban. Without that, she said, "there's a reluctance of some legislators to sign on." Notably, she added, there is no one with a Kent or Sussex County constituency among the bill's several co-sponsors. "It comes down to education ... [to] prevent people from finding places to hide it -- like down a sewer drain," said Stephen Lange, president of Newark-based Integrated Turf Management System. Werner said that the committee's proposal must be "based on good science and good business sense." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

APPEAL FILED: Friends of Paladin and three residents of the southeastern Brandywine Hundred condominium complex asked Superior Court to overrule the county Board of Adjustment' decision that Edgewood Village l.l.c. does not have to replace a section of a stone wall that it had torn down. The petition filed by attorney Richard Abbott on behalf of the civic organization and Roy Jackson, John Severin and Marie Sims said the board lacked jurisdiction because it is limited by law to resolving zoning issues and the dispute over the wall was a subdivision issue within the purview of the Planning Board. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on September 30, 2005

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