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October, 2005

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The first weekend in December has been set, weather permitting, as the target for returning Concord Pike to its original course through the Blue Ball area.

"So far, everything has been falling into place pretty good," according to project engineer Bruce Kay. He said that construction crews have been working early and late on weekdays and have done some Saturday and Sunday work in an effort to take advantage of generally favorable weather and keep to the timetable. Soon after the switch back, work will begin to reduce the construction bypass to a two-lane road through what will be Alapocas Run State Park. The portion of Weldin Road between Foulk Road and Carothers Drive will be then be closed for rebuilding and traffic diverted onto a detour by way of Shipley Road.

With the reopening of Concord Pike, traffic headed south on Foulk Road will have the option of accessing the pike at the site of the former intersection, which has been made into a partial interchange or continuing to use the road south of Independence Mall. Both connections will be controlled by traffic signals. Traffic northbound out of Wilmington on Concord Pike will not be able to access Foulk Road directly, but will have to continue to use the Independence Mall road. Meanwhile, work is progressing on a new major highway between Powder Mill Road and the Concord Pike-Foulk Road interchange. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

A 'workshop' meeting has been scheduled for Nov. 17 between 4 and 8 p.m. at Brandywine High School to advise the public of the new arrangements.

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HEAD COUNT: As you may have noticed, there are more of us now -- 21,919 to be specific. The Delaware Population Consortium reports that the population of New Castle County is now 538,852, up 4.4% from 2000. Wilmington had a slight loss, six-tenths of 1%, to 72,213 while Newark matched the countywide gain to reach 30,613. According to the consortium, the state is home to 840,692, up 6.9% during the past five years, with Sussex County posting the largest share of the increase.  Its  annual projection has the state passing the 1 million mark around 2025 and New Castle crossing the 600,000 threshold some time between then and 2030.

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LATE PAYMENTS: The timetable by which county government passes on property taxes it collects for them has left schools districts in a financial bind, according to David Blowman, Brandywine's chief financial officer. Reporting a "cash-flow problem" to the school board on Oct. 24, he said, "The money we expected in August we got in September [and] the money we expected in September we got in October." He did not specify the amounts involved, but said both the Red Clay and Christina districts are experiencing the same problem. The county should not sit on the money, he said.  "After  all, it's our money they're collecting."

Michael Strine, the county's chief financial officer, said Blowman's reference was "to a long-standing beef that the districts have with the state code governing collection and transfer of school taxes to the school districts." The law provides that collected taxes be reported and turned over to the state treasury on the first of each month. "The provisions [of the law] have been in place for some time and the paying over [of] school tax collected by New Castle County [has] followed the standard procedure," Strine said.  Moreover, he added, the county "absorbs a significant cost on behalf of the districts."

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County Councilman John Cartier introduced an ordinance to incorporate the Brookview Apartments site into the Claymont's 'historic overlay'. As a rezoning measure, it goes before the Planning Board for a hearing and recommendation before returning  to Council for action.

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The Brandywine school board agreed to put off for at least a month wrapping up arrangements to lease the cleared Channin and Old Mill Lane school sites to youth sports groups.

John Weaver, of Concord Soccer Association, asked for the delay to allow time for  his organization and Talleyville Softball League to review terms of the long-term lease to New Castle County government. The county, in an arrangement under which state government paid to demolish the derelict school buildings, is to sublease the sites to the youth groups. Weaver told the board on Oct. 24, that a 10-year renewable lease "is not [long] enough to reasonably recoup our investment." He indicated that Concord Soccer is considering spending as much as $1 million to improve the site and would like the agreement to extend at least 25 years.

Brandywine lawyer Ellen Cooper told Weaver that he had misread the lease, which he said had just been made available to him earlier in the day of the meeting. After 10 years, she said, the arrangement is renewed automatically "and can go on forever -- 50, 60, 70 years." The school district has to give two years' notice to take back either or both of the properties, which it will continue to own, for school purposes. Although Cooper said it had been hoped that the lease agreement could go before County Council for final approval on Nov. 8, she agreed with superintendent Bruce Harter's decision to recommend that the board postpone its approval.

Cooper said the youth organizations will not have exclusive use of the properties. Copies of the dollar-a-year lease were not made available to the public at the school board meeting.

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ARCHITECT PICKED: Anderson, Brown, Higley Associates was chosen as architect to design the complete renovation of the historic P.S. du Pont school building in north Wilmington. Brandywine district superintendent Bruce Harter was authorized by the school board on Oct. 24 to negotiate a contract with the firm, which support services director Barbara Meredith said was among 11 which submitted proposals. Board president Craig Gilbert said he was "impressed by the number of architects that wanted to be involved" in what is said to be the largest ever public school renovation in the state.

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TOO MANY CLOSED DOORS: Common Cause of Delaware charged that the government taskforce studying likely effects of the acquisition of M.B.N.A. Bank by Bank of America violated the state Freedom of Information Act by going into executive session at an Oct. 12 meeting to discuss “confidential business information.” That, the complaint said, is not one of the nine reasons permitting a public body to shut out the public from its deliberations. The panel said that a matter "which will affect the jobs of thousands of Delawareans" should be aired in compliance with the law.

Going beyond the complaint, Common Cause, a 'good-government' organization, said it is "concerned with the increasing trend towards secrecy in the Minner administration -- in particular, the events surrounding the secrecy of prison medical audits, recent revelations of secrecy in state highway transportation projects as well as the secrecy of avian flu outbreaks on chicken farms in the state." The M.B.N.A. taskforce is being fronted by the Delaware Economic Development Office and chaired by its director, Judy McKinney-Cherry. Only the state legislature is exempted from provisions of the law.

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Claymont is in line for a new or significantly upgraded train station, but, although a preliminary engineering study will be done, it likely will be several years before one materializes.

Dave Gula, senior planner with Wilmington Area Planning Council, offered three possible scenarios: replace the existing structures; construct a new station building and parking garage; or build the new station on the Citi Steel property several hundred yards north of the present site. Tigist Zegeye, the planning council's executive director, agreed to undertake the study, using the $30,000 remaining from a previous community transportation planning grant. Financially-beleaguered Delaware Department of Transportation does not have money for a previously planned "cosmetic upgrade" any time in the immediate future, Gula  said.

He told a meeting of the Claymont Renaissance Leadership Team on Oct. 20 that an average of 757 patrons, mostly commuters, use the station on weekdays, up 9.7% from a year ago. That includes folks who come from Delaware County, Pa., to take advantage of the 504 free parking spaces. Kennard Potts, Delaware Transit Corp.'s contract operations manager, said patronage has increased noticeably since the sharp rise in gasoline prices. A redeveloped 1,200-unit Brookview is expected to attract residents who will join the clique of commuters to jobs in Philadelphia.

The leadership team told DelDOT that it would prefer to limit the scope of delayed but still  pending improvements to Philadelphia Pike to the stretch immediately adjacent to Brookview.

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NEW JOB: Wilmington mayor James Baker appointed Ronald Morris, who retired earlier this year as New Castle County government's chief financial officer, to be the city's finance director. He succeeds Ronald Pinkett, who resigned in August. Morris worked for the county for more than 30 years and is largely credited with having secured  a triple-A bond rating from the three major Wall Street rating firms, a distinction which only 21 counties in the nation have. A press statement announcing his appointment quoted Morris as saying that "the ethical ability to build confidence and trust" is the most important element in a professional reputation.

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BACK IN LINE: The bypass which carries Concord Pike around the Blue Ball construction area is expected to be closed and traffic put back on the rebuilt main roadway in late November or early December. The bypass has been in use since July, 2004. When Concord Pike reopens, access from Foulk Road will be provided at the new intersection, eliminating the 'dog leg' route to the bypass near Independence Mall, Delaware Department of Transportation spokesman Robert King said. The bypass will be reduced to a two-lane road connecting Foulk Road and Augustine Cut-off in 2006.

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County residents and businesses heating with natural gas face hefty increases in their utility bills beginning Nov. 1 with more likely to come later on.

The Delaware Public Service Commission will allow Delmarva Power to put into effect half of the requested 37.3% increase in its 'natural gas cost rate adjustment' pending a final decision on the full increase. If the full amount is granted, the basic rate will go from 85.9˘ per 100 cubic feet to $1.18. The company said the full increase will result in a total monthly charge of $189.86 for a 'typical' residential customer, up from $150.90. Actual charges vary between residential and commercial customers and the quantity of gas consumed. A telephone call by Delaforum to Delmarva's public relations office seeing further details was not returned.

In an order issued on Oct. 11 granting permission to impose part of the increase on a temporary subject-to-refund basis, the commission directed that the full increase be put before one or more public hearings to gather evidence concerning justification for the proposal. Delmarva, a subsidiary of Washington, D.C.-based Pepco Holdings, like other gas utilities around the nation, cites the impact of Gulf Coast hurricanes as the principal reason for "significant recent increases" in the wholesale cost of gas. The Delaware utility is allowed to pass on changes in that cost to its customers.

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With the closest vote since it was expanded, County Council enacted a controversial ordinance which makes electronically controlled message signs legal.

Heeding warnings that failure to do so would put local businesses at a competitive disadvantage and open the county's sign law to a constitutional challenge, Council, by a seven-to-six vote, agreed to allow the signs, provided they stay the same for at least 12 hours and don't scroll, blink or jiggle. President Paul Clark said the measure changes nothing except how the messages are changed. Lawyer Lisa Goodman said it eliminates the need for gas station employees to climb 34-foot ladders to keep pace with price changes. Kimberly Brosseit said Delaware Park race track and slots parlor needs it to keep up with competition in neighboring jurisdictions.

Philip Lavelle, speaking for the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, argued at Council's session on Oct. 11 that "not enough time" had been spent studying the issue. He said the ordinance would mostly  benefit gas stations and car dealers who "already are the most flagrant violators of our sign law." Councilman Robert Weiner agreed with him that waiting a while before acting would permit drafting better legislation. Patricia Hart, a resident of Newark, said such signs are a distraction for drivers because they're hard to ignore. "There has been an unfair focus on this [issue] because some people just don't like signs," Clark said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delafourm article.)

County Executive Christopher Coons told Delaforum that, because of the closeness of the vote, he will seek recommendations from the land use and legal departments and review testimony at the Council meeting before deciding whether to sign the measure into law.

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SILVERSIDE PROPERTY REZONED: In something of a turnabout from usual practice, Council on Oct. 11 'downzoned' a commercial property to residential over the objections of its owner after Charles Baker, general manager of the Department of Land Use, said classifying it as commercial in 1998, when new zoning classifications went into effect, was a mistake. William Rhodunda, lawyer for Jeffrey and Nancy Schmidt, argued that the action was "arbitrary and capricious" and amounted to siding with next-door neighbor Ronald Hanby in a bitter neighborhood dispute.

At issue is one of three houses on the site of the long-defunct Silverside Dairy. The Schmidts own the entire property which Rhodunda  pointed out has used for commercial purposes since the 1930s. He said commercial zoning of the house was appropriate and would be necessary "when and if" it is included in a plan to redevelop the site. If that happens, he added, buffering requirements would protect neighboring properties. Baker said numerous code-violation complaints prompted the department to "come to the conclusion that we did make a mistake." He acknowledged that Hanby, who is suing the Schmidts, was the source of the complaints.

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An unidentified county police officer wrote himself as many as 67 checks drawn on the department's off-duty jobs fund and forged signatures on them, according to county auditor Robert Wasserbach.

That charge was among several irregularities cited in a preliminary report issued on Oct. 11. Its only specific references to police chief David McAllister, who has been on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a three-part investigation of the way the jobs were assigned and paid for, was to his having issued "updated" procedures in August, 2004, and having responded in April, 2005, to a memo from public safety director Guy Sapp inquiring about the fund . McAllister is the subject of an investigation by the county legal department and the police department's internal affairs unit is investigating other officers' involvement with the fund.

Wasserbach's report said it was frequent practice for check signatures to be forged, but noted that may have been done in some instances because authorized signers were not immediately available. He found that some of the money paid by organizations employing services of off-duty officers beyond what was used to pay the officers went to a variety of things ranging from bagpipes to retirement parties. The report also said that some officers were paid for assignments they did not perform or twice for the same assignment. Also, some organizations did not pay their bills and little or no effort was made to collect what was owed. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

"The dollar amount may not be large ... but we are seriously concerned with the overall number of findings," Wasserbach wrote.

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Despite a sign clearly instructing them to move on if they cannot fit into the driveway, drivers queue up daily on Concord Pike at the McDonald's restaurant, blocking a traffic lane on the busy highway and causing precipitous lane changes when no amount of horn blowing can budge them.

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LET'S BE FRIENDS"Any time we talk person-to-person, 90% of the problems could be solved," BernardoAlvarez, Venezuela's ambassador to the United States, told Wilmington City Council. Before his courtesy visit to Council, he proposed at an arts and culture gathering in the lobby of Redding Building on Oct. 6 that Wilmington be a venue for a goodwill tour of his colleagues from other Latin American nations. He said he would be willing to organize such an event, but it was not certain if steps will be taken to do so. Getting to know each other on an individual basis would promote "love and culture and understanding, he said.

Alvarez was in town to attend a 'building bridges among nations' reception featuring the paintings of Magda Korn, a native of Venezuela who lives in Hockessin. Her husband, civic activist Richard Korn, said the event was intended to demonstrate "what unites us, not what divides us." Relations between the Bush administration and the government of President Hugo Chavez have been strained. None of that was reflected at the social event as gifts were exchanged and attenders partook of chocolates and a buffet dinner of traditional food while listening to music of the South American nation.

Last updated on October 28, 2005

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