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May, 2006

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139th MEMORIAL DAY REMEMBRANCE:

Only a handful of spectators turned out along Delaware Avenue (above) as Wilmington honored America's war dead as it has done annually on May 30 since 1868. Gerald Brady, (left) a city councilman and a warrant officer in the Delaware National Guard, who served a year in Kuwait supporting troops in Iraq, told of his experiences. Fourteen marines and soldiers with Delaware familial connections have so far died in the war. Cadets in the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corp at Newark High School (below) assisted sponsoring organizations in placing wreaths in honor of them and those who made the supreme sacrifice during past conflicts at the Soldiers & Sailors Monument.

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False alarms from automatic security systems will cost households and commercial establishments money if legislation pending before County Council is enacted.

The measure, sponsored by Councilman Timothy Sheldon, is intended to alleviate what law-enforcement agencies around the country contend is a major and unnecessary drain on manpower and resources. According to the preamble of the proposed ordinance, county police in 2004 responded to 14,391 alarms of which 97% were false. That rate is said to be equivalent to having 2½ officers doing nothing else but coping with false alarms. They are putting county residents "in jeopardy by depriving the public of valuable police manpower needed to respond to true emergencies," according to the preamble.

The ordinance -- which can be voted upon as soon as Jun. 13 -- would require that all alarm systems be registered. Before the security service company to which the system is linked may call for police help, it must attempt to contact the client or a designated alternate to verify that an emergency actually exsists. After two false alarms during a 12-month period, a civil penalty of $100 would be levied for the third, $200 for the fourth and $250 for each subsequent one. After a fifth false alarm, police would not respond to subsequent calls. Holdup and so-called 'panic alarms' would not be covered by the ordinance.

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REZONING ENDORSED: The county Planning Board and Department of Land Use have recommended that County Council approve rezoning the 65-acre Brookview site in Claymont to permit its redevelopment as a mixed-use residential and commercial community. The recommendations are conditioned on completion of an acceptable development agreement providing for including so-called 'workforce' housing and continued monitoring as the project progresses and building permits are issued. In return, the Commonwealth-Setting joint venture developer will be allowed unprecedented flexibility in executing the plan. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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The Brandywine school board has set late August as the target date for hiring a new superintendent to succeed Bruce Harter, who is leaving to head a district in Riverside, Calif.

The board disclosed that it has hired Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, a search firm specializing in education-related positions, to conduct a nationwide search for candidates for the job. A circular distributed at the board meeting on May 22 said there would be community meetings on May 31 and  June 1 and 2 to gather views on desired attributes, followed by a board 'workshop' on Jun. 12 to set those parameters. The board will meet several times behind closed doors during the summer "narrowing the field to several finalists and finally choosing a final candidate," the circular said.

Harter and chief financial officer David Blowman "attested" at the May 22 meeting that information the board has received about Brandywine district's financial condition is accurate. Board president Craig Gilbert asked for the oral declaration to assure, he said, that Brandywine is not at risk for the same kind of overspending crisis that has hit the Christina district, where board members claim they were kept in the dark about spending practices. Harter said Brandywine publishes financial data with "a level of detail" exceeding what is found in all other districts in the state. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Gilbert was re-elected to another one-year term as board president and Nancy Doorey was chosen to be vice president, succeeding Joseph Brumskill.

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SAME EFFECT: Wawa is not being fined $1,500 a month for being out of compliance with the development plan for its outlet at Philadelphia Pike and Harvey Road. The firm has not repainted the convenience store's façade as it previously agreed to do. The fine was reported at a recent meeting of the Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee. A county Department of Land Use spokesman said, however, that  the firm is paying that amount monthly to use the building under a temporary certificate of occupancy until it is brought into compliance. The approved plan calls for all the brick to be red.

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FURTHER STEPS: County Executive Christopher Coons promised to "take a hard look at all possible cost-cutting and revenue sources" following expected approval of his proposed fiscal 2007 budget and 5% property-tax rate increase.  He told a public meeting on May 15 to explain the budget proposal -- attended by only a dozen people -- that he will appoint panels to delve into such things as a general reassessment of properties, revenue-generating possibilities from such county assets as Rockwood and Carousel Parks, and an overhaul of the county's employee compensation system.

He said the tax increase in the coming year would have a compounded effect in future years, enabling county government to "draw down [existing reserve funds] as slowly as possible" to mitigate future tax increases. County law limits any tax increase to 5% although County Council could repeal or change that by a simple majority vote. Coons repeated a previous promise to seek General Assembly approval of additional revenue sources for the county although, he said, "odds of getting help from Dover or Washington are low this year." He said that, even with a rate increase, the county faces a financial crisis "without some basic change in [its revenue] alignment."

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CHALLENGE: Richard Korn, a self-styled 'outsider', will try to capture the traditionally Republican Hockessin-Pike Creek seat in the General Assembly for the Democrats in November. Formally declaring his candidacy to succeed Roger Roy, who has announced his intention to retire after 30 years in the legislature, Korn said, "there is no Republican way to pave a pothole or no Democratic way to clean a park and there is no partisan way to create jobs." Brian Moore, president of the Pike Creek Civic League, has declared for the Republican nomination and has been endorsed by Roy.

Korn, who recently arranged for delivery of a million gallons of heating oil to needy households and 150,000 gallons to homeless shelters in the area, said he intends to expand the program next winter to include nursing homes, schools and senior centers among the recipients. The fuel was supplied by Citgo Petroleum Corp., a subsidiary of the Venezuelan state oil company, and distributed here by Catholic Charities. Korn's candidacy was endorsed by state treasurer Jack Markell and Robert Gilligan, minority leader in the House of Representatives. Gilligan said it helps give Democrats the opportunity to take  control of that chamber.

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New Castle County government plans to sell bonds to borrow $75 million in August and another $50million next January and then go to the bond market at subsequent six-month intervals.

Chief financial officer Michael Strine told a County Council budget hearing that that scenario will "create a market for [county] bonds and keep the interest rate down" while preserving the county's best-possible triple-A bond rating. The county's debt is well below prudent limits, he said. He said that now-resolved litigation brought by Hockessin resident Richard Korn had delayed any bond sale for 18 months. While indicating that the delay carried a cost, he declined a request by Councilman Robert Weiner to specify how much. Timing and variations in interest rates make even a general estimate hypothetical, String said.

He told Council on May 8 that approval of the proposed 5% increase in the property tax rate "will send a signal" to investors that the county intends to keep its financial house in order and is not "waiting to face the reality we know is out there." Proceeds of the August bond sale will go mostly to replace $59 million the county has 'borrowed' from reserve accounts to keep capital projects -- primarily construction of the new public safety building -- going. The proposed $58,370,000 capital budget that County Executive Christopher Coons presented in March defers $7.5 million in the approved fiscal 2007 capital-spending plan to future years, Strine said.

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Richard Korn will throw his hat into the ring on May 12 to run as a Democrat to succeed long-term Republican state representative Roger Roy, who has announced that he will not seek re-election in November.

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PENSION ELIGIBILITY: If Brandywine schools superintendent Bruce Harter is still employed by the district on June 30, he will be eligible for a state pension of at least $13,150 a year after age 62. He is to become superintendent of the Richmond, Calif., school district, as of July 1. A Delaware pension is vested with five years of service, which Harter will have on June 30.  The payout at that level and the minimum retirement age is approximately 9% of the average of the three highest annual salaries. An employee may take his or her contribution to the pension fund when leaving state service, but that forfeits the rest of the pension. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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Robert Krebs, spokesman for the Catholic diocese, denied on May 5 that the Childrens Home property on Green Street in Claymont has been sold. It and the Siena Hall property in west Wilmington, formerly residential child-care facilities, remain on the market, he said.

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CUTTING LOSSES: Patrons of the Brandywine branch library may soon have to get their coffee from a vending machine as a cost-conscious county government looks for way to trim its budget for the coming fiscal year. Anne Farley, general manager of the Department of Community Services, told a County Council budget hearing on May 1 that the subsidy for the poorly patronized café will be cut to $30,000 from $70,500 as new arrangements are sought. Council president Paul Clark suggested an even more drastic cutback. "If the subsidy is more than a couple of dollars, get rid of it," he said. The Newark library café has been closed.

Farley said her department also is looking at the county's relationship with libraries operated under contracts, such as those in Wilmington and New Castle. Although the county pays operating costs, it has no say in hiring procedures, hours of operation and other policies, she said. The largest addition to the department's budget for the coming year will be the soon-to-open Woodlawn branch in west Wilmington. It will require hiring seven employees and spending just under $700,000 on operating costs. Clark suggested that the department also take a closer look at operations of Rockwood and Carousel parks.

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CLOSER LOOK: Christina School District's enrollment declined by 373 students during the past three years, but the district increased its payroll during that period by 160 employees. A review of state payroll data shows that 50 of the 233 Christina employees whose salaries are paid entirely with local tax money are teachers and another 77 are paraprofessional aides, which indicates that at least 45% of locally-paid employees are not directly involved in teaching. Two-thirds of the $20.9 million by which Christina’s salary costs have gone up since the 2002-03 fiscal year is local money.

The district has 1,182 employees, or 40% of the total, with annual salaries of $50,000 or more. Of those, 394 earn $75,000 or more and 64 top $100,000.  Average salary in the district is $46,460. The employee-to-student ratio is 1:6.5. Both of the regular districts serving northern New Castle County which 'lost' students in the three-year period, added employees. Brandywine's enrollment declined by 129 students while that district increased its workforce by 117. Red Clay, with 104 more students added 80 employees and Colonial, with 101 more students added only four. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on June 14, 2006

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