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April, 2006

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Christina School District's financial crisis was no surprise to board president Brenda Phillips. "We tend to think the sky is falling for the first time. [but] we've been in this position before," she said.

It seems to happen every time the district hires a new superintendent, she she said at an emergency meeting of the board on Apr. 27. Lillian Lowery -- who beat out Brandywine's Bruce Harter for the job -- asked Delaware Department of Education for a review of district finances when she assumed the suprintendency earlier this year. There have been "at least four deficit experiences" during her tenure on the board, Phillips added. Dorcell Spence, DelDOE's assistant superintendent of finances, told the board that, if nothing is done between now and then, the district will end up at least $14 million in the red in the current fiscal year, which ends Jun. 30.

Lowery said she will present a plan for some immediate cost cutting for approval at the board's regularly scheduled session on May 2. "Anything we can freeze as of tomorrow (Apr. 28), we need to freeze," she said. Board member Beverly Howell questioned whether the administration leveled with the board. "When we get the budget, everything jibes. It looks like we're in good shape," she said. Phillips got Spence to acknowledge that the taskforce review she headed found that "nothing has been stolen." But Spence said she "would have to say 'yes'" when asked if the findings "involved noncompliance" with state education-financing law.

    

OUTTA HERE: Brandywine school superintendent Bruce Harter confirmed a Delaforum report that he has accepted a position as superintendent of the Richmond, Calif., school district, effective at the end of the current academic year. Except for a vague comment by school board president Craig Gilbert that the board would issue a 'press release' "if and when appropriate," neither board members nor Harter would respond on Apr. 26  to Delaforum inquiries about his status. There was no hint during the open-to-the-public portion of the board's monthly meeting on Apr. 24 that Harter was close to completing his job search.

    

Legislation is being drafted to modify the county's Unified Development Code to include more liberal provisions for so-called 'in-law suites' and other accessory dwelling units in existing houses.

Anne Farley, general manager of the Department of Community Services, told County Council that is intended to be the first recommendation of the housing taskforce to be implemented. It will provide more 'affordable housing' in existing residential communities without adversely affecting the general character of the neighborhoods, she said. At a community services committee meeting on Apr. 25 Farley said it is hoped that an ordinance will be ready for introduction in time to be enacted before the end of the year. She said a variety of interested individuals and groups will be consulted as part of the drafting process.

An accessory dwelling unit is defined as a subordinate attached or stand-alone structure or a modification to an existing single-family house to provide independent living space. The code presently allows for some types, but imposes restrictions, Farley said. Conversion of a dwelling into two or more apartments, for instance, can occur only if the building is more than 50 years old and the lot on which it stands is at least 20% larger than the minimum required for the zoning classification. Separate guest quarters can be built only for family members or caregivers and cannot be rented.

It has not been determined whether accessory dwelling provisions will be separate amendments or constitute the start of a new 'affordable housing' section of the development code.

    

TAX HIKE ENDORSED: The proposed 5% in the county property tax rate for the coming fiscal year beats the prospect of a much larger increase in future years, according to the Civic League for New Castle County. "We have seen the alternative recently in the Delmarva Power situation. ... [That] gives County Council a lesson in what not to do," the civic group's executive committee said in a statement announcing its endorsement of the proposal. Delaying it will result in a deficit that will require "drastic cuts in services," the statement said. "Talomg steps now to increase revenue is a sensible approach." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

     

Richard Carter has been appointed principal of Talley Middle School, succeeding Barbara Starkey who retired. Carter, 39, comes to the Brandywine district from the Trenton, N.J., public schools district where he was assistant principal of a middle school and assistant director of school improvement.

     

SOFTBALL PLAN HAS GROWN: Rick Lohkamp, vice president of the Liftwood Civic Association, asked the Brandywine school board to require that the plan for a softball fields complex in that development be scaled back to proportions originally presented to the community. He said Talleyville Girls Softball League now has a plan pending before the county Department of Land Use which provides for clearing several trees to make room for a 61-vehicle parking lot and a wide  blacktop walkway. There would be four playing fields capable of accommodating five games or practice sessions simultaneously.

The proposal put before the community when the youth  league was seeking approval to lease the site of the former Old Mill Lane elementary school "didn't seem to involve this much construction and destruction of the property," he told the board on Apr. 24. Brandywine School District attorney Ellen Cooper said that under terms of  the lease with county government -- which subleases the site to the league -- "they can't make any [substantial] changes or improvements to the property without the approval of the [school] board." Although the board made no commitment, members appeared sympathetic to Lohkamp's plea.

     

CLEAN UP:

Volunteers got together on Apr. 15 to spruce up the 'bark park' in Talley-Day Park. Included among those who participated in the project organized by County Councilman Robert Weiner were County Executive Chris Cooks and Council president Paul Clark.

     

Army Reserve units based in northern Delaware and the Delaware National Guard will share an armory under provisions of the Department of Defense closing and realignment plan.

The plan calls for closing the Korean War-vintage Robert Kirkwood training center on Kirkwood Highway and building a replacement facility at an as yet undetermined site in the Newark area. Availability of the new installation would permit closing the William Nelson armory in Middletown "if the state decided to relocate [its] units [sic]," according to the reserve component section of the closure report. Major Len Gratteri, Delaware National  Guard's public affairs officer, said there are no present plans to close the armory, but "we'll take a new [facility] if the [federal] government will build one for us." The 160th Engineers Company is based at the armory.

Although implementation of the plan is not due to start until September, 2007, and to be completed by 2011, New Castle County Council on Apr. 11 approved a joint economic development agreement with state for determining future use of the Kirkwood Highway site. Assuming no other federal agency wants it, first priority under federal guidelines would be to provide for homeless people, county redevelopment director Karl Kalbacher said. If that's not feasible, other public or private uses would be possible. There could also be a could stormwater drainage pond constructed on the nine-acre property.

The report said relocation would cost $13.6 million, but would save $900,000 a year in operating costs. Apparently no jobs would be lost or added in the process.

    

GRAFFITI DEVICES BAN: A proposed county law is intended to keep the tools of their trade out of the hands of graffiti artists -- at least those under the age of 18. Sponsored by Councilman Joseph Reda and likely to come before Council for passage on Apr. 25, the measure would ban providing minors, by sale or otherwise, with broad-tipped markers, aerosol cans of paint, paint sticks or other devices that can be used to apply offensive artwork without parental consent. The preamble to the proposed ordinance said that graffiti vandalism of both private and public property "has become an increasing concern."

    

County Executive Christopher endorsed a consultant's recommendation to increase the size of the county police force, but some Council members questioned whether the proposal goes far enough.

Police Executive Research Forum recommended increasing the force's authorized strength to 196 officers, up from 179 now. Hiring civilians over the next two to three years for 10 of the positions now filled by officers would put 27 more on patrol, thereby increasing the amount of time available for officer-initiated activity and community policing. "There is a desire to interact with the community [instead of] just running from call to call and making traffic stops," said Craig Fraser, the firm's director of management services. That is "difficult to do when we're spending time answering calls for service," public safety director Guy Sapp said.

Councilman William Bell, chair of the public safety committee, said that, in addition to expanding the police force, there is need to add staff in the 9-1-1 emergency calls center and to upgrade the status of those workers. He told a Council hearing on the public safety department's proposed budget that the paramedic service also needs to be expanded. After Councilman William Tansey suggested charging for paramedic service, chief administrative officer David Singleton said the administration is "taking a close look at that concept." Councilman John Cartier objected saying, "They're not there to bill people; they're there to save lives."

Coons said he was pleased with the consultant's favorable finding about the police force's skill level and equipment. Asked to give it an overall rating, Fraser would only say, "The department is not quite optimum."

    

ANOTHER HOMETOWN Northern Delaware's oldest 'suburb' will seek 'hometown' zoning protection in February, 2007, Centreville residents were told at a community meeting. Civic activist Patt Cannon said there will be a series of public meetings as the required plan and design guidelines are being prepared for submission to County Council. "We don't want the character of Centreville to change. ... To do that we need to plan ahead." she said. The unincorporated community traces its roots to around 1750 when it was founded as one of a string of waystations on the road between Wilmington and West Chester, Pa.

Town planner Thomas Comitta told the meeting on Apr. 10 that the core of the 'hometown' district will be the stretch of Kennett Pike between the traffic island 'gateways'. The idea, he explained, will be to "conserve the village character," emphasize the community's history and enhance both quality-of-life features and property values there and in the surrounding area. If 'hometown' status is achieved, the guidelines would govern future development and redevelopment. Centreville would join Claymont and Hockessin with such protection. Comitta, whose consulting firm is based in West Chester, led the effort to produce the Claymont guidelines.

    

LIBRARY COMING ALONG:

There is still a ways to go, but county officials said the Woodlawn branch library in west Wilmington will open on schedule in September and be completed on budget. Anne Farley, general manager of the Department of Community Services (at podium in right photo), said at public during-construction preview that the library, budgeted to cost $7.5 million to construct and equip, will have 50,000 books and other material. It replaces the Wilmington Institute branch at Sixth St. and Bancroft Parkway which has been in operation since the 1920s. That facility will close Jul. 1 to allow for some of its collection to be moved to the new county government-managed building. Soon to be erected at the new site will be a pedestrian bridge over the C.S.X. Railroad tracks, finally connecting the eastern and western sections of Bancroft Parkway. The Apr. 7 event was held to build support for the library's 'Friends' efforts to raise the remaining $300,000 of its $2 million community-participation portion of the project's cost.

    

SMUG AND ALOOF: Legislators and other public officials have lost touch with their grass roots, according toformer transportation secretary Nathan Hayward. Speaking at the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred's '50 plus' anniversary reception on Apr. 6, he noted that, despite the council's long involvement with public issues, no one from the General Assembly or New Castle County Council was in the room. "That in itself represents one of the major problems we have in Delaware," he said. "Make sure our representatives do the right thing. ... Make sure they know you're watching them." (CLICK HERE to read Delaforum commentary.)

    

The state Senate on Apr. 6 completed action on Delmarva Power rate increase deferral legislation and Governor Ruth Ann Minner immediately signed it into law. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Paul Clark can't understand why, despite all that has been said during the past year, the public "thinks we have wads of money sitting around" and, therefore, the county doesn't need a tax increase.

The president of County Council made that remark as Michael Strine, the county's chief financial officer, opened the annual round of budget hearings with a detailed briefing showing the county's operating budget reserve running out during the fiscal year which begins Jul. 1, 2008. "We should not disagree about how much money there is. We may disagree about what we want to do with it, but let's agree on the numbers," he said. By the coming  Jun. 30, he said, combined reserves in the general and sewer funds and their respective 'rainy day' emergency funds will total $125.8 million -- well below the $230 million still being talked about in some quarters.

Strine said the 5% property tax rate increase County Executive Christopher Coons is seeking is the maximum permitted under a previously uncited and little known provision in county law. Excluded form that cap are taxes which pay for school crossing guards -- slated to go up for the coming year in the Brandywine, Red Clay and Christina school districts -- and for ornamental street lights in communities which have them. Therefore, he pointed out at the hearing on Apr. 3, most county property owners would find their county tax bill more than 5% higher if Council approves the requested increase in the basic rate. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Councilwoman Karen Venezky suggested that the size of the 'rainy day' funds -- 20% of the budgets -- "is something we should take up." That amount, she said, is higher than in most other government jurisdictions.

    

ELECTRICITY RATE LEGISLATION: The General Assembly on Apr. 4 is scheduled to take up a somewhat revised version of a proposed law that would allow residential and small business commercial customers to  'phase in' Delmarva Power's May 1 rate increase. As the company requested, the revision specifies that users must pay the entire amount that has been deferred by June 1, 2009. A key provision in the measure requires the company to file with the Public Service Commission by Aug. 1 a proposal to stabilize rates by entering into long-term supply contracts or possibly building or reacquiring generating facilities in Delaware. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on December 28, 2007

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