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March, 2006

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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.)


THAT'S COOL: The Coons administration is all right with County Council's decision to hire a consultant to examine its proposed fiscal 2007 budget. In response to a Delaforum inquiry, spokeswoman Christy Gleason provided a statement on behalf of the administration saying that it "welcome[s] Council's thorough review." But the statement goes on to warn, "The one thing that we cannot afford to do is to wait another year before taking action to address our long term budget challenges." County Executive Christopher Coons has proposed increasing the property tax rate by 5%. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


LABOR CONTRACT: Brandywine school board approved a three-year contract under which paraprofessional aides will receive bonuses if the schools in which they work meet goals for student progress. It also includes a 2.6% increase in the district portion of their pay, to $1.95 an hour, for the current year, followed by 3% increases in the next two years. The board on Mar. 27 also approved a 4% local share increase for secretaries and support staff retroactive to last July 1. Financial officer David Blowman said the raise was not given earlier because negotiations with their union were underway. The union has since been decertified as their bargaining agent.


County Council enacted a change in the Unified Development Code which provides more liberal rules for redeveloping idle or underused properties.

The measure, approved on Mar. 28 by an 11-to-two vote with William Bell and Patty Powell dissenting, is the third revision of the code in what so far has been a less-than-fully-successful effort to encourge  so-called 'brownfield' and 'grayfield' development in areas which have roads, sewers and other infrastructure. Changes include granting greater density in other than residential areas and for apartment buildings; waiving impact fees except for sewers; and requiring a traffic study only if Delaware Department of Transportation requests one. Projects involving up to 5,000 square feet -- five times the present limit -- will be treated as minor plans.

Beverly Baxter, of the Committee of 100, a developer organization, testified before the vote that, without the changes, many existing properties cannot be redeveloped because there is not enough room to meet development code requirements. The code, she said, is written in a way which favors building in previously undeveloped areas. Martha Denison, of the Civic League for New Castle County, said the ordinance would allow wide latitude for developing any property with a building already on it. Economic development director Karl Kalbacher said properties to be redeveloped still will have to comply with their zoning classification.

Councilman John Cartier said the ordinance will be especially beneficial to southeastern Brandywine Hundred.


STORMWATER STUDY APPROVED: County Council took the first step toward what is expected to result in creation of a stormwater utility. At its meeting on Mar. 28 it unanimously approved an ordinance authorizing spending a $200,000 surface water-management grant from the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control to hire a contractor "for any and all work related to planning" for such a utility. A stormwater utility is a semiautonomous organization, financed by fees based on the amount of a property's impervious surface, to deal with drainage-control, flooding and related matters.


The Brandywine school board authorized a three-member committee to negotiate an agreement with a national search firm to seek a new superintendent if that becomes necessary.

"No one should read into this that there is any wedge between the board and Dr. [Bruce] Harter," according to board president Craig Gilbert. He stressed that the firm would actually be engaged "in the event -- and only in the event -- that Dr. Harter is a candidate and is successful is obtaining another position." Harter is publicly known to have been a finalist for the superintendency in the Christina and three out-of-state districts. "Christina was a wake-up call for us," said Nancy Doorey, a member of the committee. "It gave us a sense of urgency. We don't want to be caught napping."

Asked after the board meeting on Mar. 27 if he has any potential moves currently pending, Harter replied, "Not that I'm going to comment on." Doorey reported to the board that the committee selected Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, of Glenview, Ill., from among more than 100 firms identified by the National School Boards Association as specializing in finding school administrators. The other board members comprising the committee are Joseph Brumskill and Olivia Johnson-Harris. Brumskill said he was impressed by the fact that the selected firm "is willing to tailor the search to our particular needs." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


RESTITUTION OBTAINED: Families of two juveniles convicted of burning a playground structure in Beaver Brook Park have been ordered to pay for the damage they caused, estimated at $26,000. According to Susan Amadio, of the Department of Special Services, it was the first time there have been arrests and convictions for major park vandalism. Department general manager Richard Przywara said prosecution and seeking restitution will be the policy from now on. There also has been relatively recent vandalism in Styvescent Hills, Country Creek and Woodley Parks, but those vandals have not been caught.


NEW POSITIONS: Brandywine School District has added specialists to its administrative staff to develop and oversee operation of enhanced security measures for its buildings and monitor its use of energy. Traci Fraley, who formerly was involved with occupational safety and health in the state Department of Labor, will be in charge of safety, health  and security. Gwen Looby comes from the U.S. Department of Energy's  regional office where she was project manager for the federal energy management program. The district spokesman declined to reveal their salaries. Increased spending in both areas was authorized at the referendum in May, 2005.


NO PARKLAND SWAP: State representative Wayne Smith said he has received assurances from CountyExecutive Chris Coons that the Commonwealth-Setting joint venture will not be permitted to build a condominium in Woodshaven-Kruse Park. That had been preliminarily proposed as part of the redevelopment of the Brookview apartments complex. Land in the park would be 'exchanged' for more-than-required open space in the area designated for stormwater drainage in the community. "So it appears we have saved the park from this threat of development," Smith said in a letter to constituents. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


RUNNER-UP: Brandywine school superintendent Bruce Harter failed in his bid to become superintendent of the Hamilton County School District, which covers Chattanooga, Tenn. That school board selected Jim Scales, deputy superintendent of the Dallas, Tex., district, on Mar. 16. Harter was the other finalist for the job. According to The Chattanoogan, board member Debbie Colburn said she found Harter "brilliant," but felt "he might function better as a consultant for the school system than its leader." Harter did not respond to a Delaforum request for comment concerning his future plans and whether he has any other active job applications. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


PAY NOW OR PAY LATER: Delmarva Power said it filed a proposal with the state Public Service Commission to allow its customers the option of whether or not to phase in electricity rate increases in three steps or pay significantly higher rates beginning May 1.  The phase-in period would run from then until June 1, 2007. Ratepayers who opt to phase would pay an additional amount which the company previously said would "cover the costs deferred during the phase-in period." A press statement distributed after the close of business on Mar. 15 included only a generalized reference to the impact on Delmarva Power residential customers. (CLICK HERE to read the applicable company statements as they appear on the Public Service Commission website.)


PIT BULL LAW REJECTED: County Councilman Jea Street received plenty of support from his colleagues, but only Penrose Hollins's vote as his attempt to muzzle pit bulls was defeated by an 11-to-2 vote on Mar. 14. Public safety director Guy Sapp and John Caldwell, director of the Society for the Protection and Care of Animals, testified that the proposed ordinance would be unenforceable. But it evidently was a flood of e.mails and telephone calls from animal owners that doomed the measure. Robert Weiner and others on Council said they would work with Street to craft compromise legislation.


"There is no animosity here," Brandywine school board president Craig Gilbert declared with reference to superintendent Bruce Harter's quest to land a new job.

Speaking at the start of a 'workshop' meeting on Mar. 13, Gilbert reiterated previously expressed understanding of his efforts. "Superintendents do move around -- that's the way it is. ... We wish him good luck," Gilbert said. He also extended congratulations to assistant superintendent Tammy Davis, who has taken a superintendency in New Hampshire, effective after the current academic year. Vice president Joseph Brumskill said Harter's having been recruited by other districts is understandable. "When you have good people ... [other] people come after them," he said.

Whether Harter leaves or not, Gilbert said, Brandywine will stay its present course with demonstrated community support. "Our path is not going to change," he said. Teachers and other district employees will continue to concentrate on educating children. "This doesn't affect them. ... They're not worrying about who is superintendent, who is assistant superintendent, who the board president is ... they're focused on Johnny and Jane every day," he said. At its next business meeting, on Mar. 27, the board will discuss engaging a firm to conduct a national search for a Davis's replacement and -- "I stress 'if necessary'" -- Harter, he added. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Other than Brumskill, board members at the meeting, attended by only two persons from the general public, stuck by their apparent decision to refrain from individual public comment.


CRUNCH TIME: Dramatically escalating energy costs will put Brandywine School District in a budget bind before going to voters in 2007 for approval to raise property taxes. "It's going to be tight -- very tight. ... That's a critical part of our budget," financial officer David Blowman told the school board. Gwen Looby, newly hired energy management specialist, reported that the district expects a $3.15 million, or 20.7%, energy spike in the current fiscal year followed by $4.64 million, or 47.3%, in fiscal 2007. Delmarva Power's planned electricity rate increases -- expected to amount to between 101% and 119% in the district -- alone will add a half million dollars.

Looby on Mar. 13 outlined for the board a detailed energy-management program being put into effect. Its provisions range from turning off lights in unoccupied classrooms to reinstalling fuel tanks to permit switching between oil and natural gas. Board member Nancy Doorey said drastic cost cutting may be required. She mentioned "going to a four-day week" without elaborating. After the meeting, Blowman told Delaforum that, while severe measures may have to be considered in the near future, "we're not there yet." Brandywine is participating in state government's effort to find an alternative electricity supplier, Looby said.


County Executive Christopher Coons assured ratepayers north of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal that they will not have to "subsidize" expansion of the sanitary sewer system south of the canal.

The expansion -- by far the largest capital project ever undertaken by New Castle County government -- will be in at least two phases financed by borrowing through the sale of long-term bonds. The initial phase is programmed to take five to seven years to complete and will cost an estimated $30 million to $35 million. It will provide sewer service to the central third of the southern section of the county, including about 2,000 of the expected 8,000 houses projected to be built in the entire area.  While that is going on, Coons said, a variety of sewage treatment technologies for incorporation into the eventual build-out plan will be studied.

Coons said while unveiling his plan at a special meeting of County Council's special services committee on Mar. 9 that he embraces the principle that "growth pays for itself." Debt service on the bonds will be met by a 'return of capital' fees on new residential and commercial construction. A surcharge atop the countywide sewer rate will be imposed in the area until the southern system has enough users to support proportional operating costs. Coons presented the Council committee with an omnibus resolution specifically endorsing all elements of his plan. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Coons made a point that "no additional funding will be required" for the initial expansion. By that, he explained, he meant that previous capital-spending authorizations are sufficient to cover it.  However, borrowing to provide actual dollars has yet to occur.


NEW DIGS: Announcement of the southern sewer plan inaugurated a new county government meeting and conference area in the Gilliam Building adjacent to the Government Center in New Castle Corporate Commons. The facilities are intended to provide a location more convenient than the Redding Building in downtown Wilmington for activities of interest to persons living south and west of the Basin Road area, according to Richard Przywara, general manager of the Department of Special Services. In addition to the meeting room, which will accommodate 150 people, Council members will have access to private office space


NOW THERE ARE TWO: It's Harter versus Scales in the competition to lead the Hamilton County (Tenn.) School District. According to an article on the website, Steve Wilmoth, superintendent of the Liberty County Schools at Hinesville, Ga., withdrew as a finalist for the job because of controversy over the selection process. That primarily involves whether to hire a local or someone from elsewhere. Scales is deputy superintendent for administrative services for the Dallas (Tex.) Independent School District. Brandywine superintendent Harter is scheduled to have a weekend interview with the Hamilton County  school board. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


Community activist Richard Korn and Christopher Bullock, pastor of Canaan Baptist Church, asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether Delmarva Power has violated anti-trust laws.

Korn said at a media event on Mar. 9 that the utility "purchased power from itself" by contracting to buy at wholesale from Conectiv Energy and using that a partial justification for its pending May 1 rate increases. Both companies are wholly owned subsidiaries of Washington, D.C.-based Pepco Holdings. He noted that Delmarva Power has said it selected three suppliers form among 11 bidders, but has so far not disclosed who the bidders were or the identities of the other two successful ones. "It's not really competitive if the bidding is secret," he said. "People in this state are going to face catastrophic costs" as a result.

State senator Karen Peterson said she is "going to do everything in my power" to turn back the increase. She has signed on as a co-sponsor of legislation that senator Cathy Cloutier is having drafted to re-regulate Delmarva Power. Cloutier did not respond to a Delaforum request for information about specifics of the legislation; Peterson said she had not yet seen the draft. "We should fix this as fast as the General Assembly gave that $16 million tax break to Bank of America," she said. Bullock said that, if something is not done quickly, "People [will be] hurting, regardless of income, from Hockessin to the 'hood." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Delawareans, Korn and Bullock said in their letter to the Department of Justice,"have no consumer choice and are left at the mercy of a deregulated monopoly."


NOT THIS YEAR: Wilmington Area Planning Council will wait until the General Assembly acts in June on capital spending legislation before deciding what it wants in the way of transportation projects in New Castle County. Waiting until finding out "how much money we have to work with" is preferable to "getting everybody all confused as we did last year," principal planner Heather Dunigan told the council's governing board at a meeting on Mar. 9. The Assembly last year ignored the council's previously approved transportation plan when it slashed Delaware Department of Transportation's spending authorization.

After the board authorized adding $1.3 million to the existing plan for development work on the U.S. Route 301 project, Dunigan said a similar process will be followed to come up with the plan to be submitted to the Federal Highway Administration before the federal fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. Ralph Reeb, DelDOT's representative on the board, said that, in coming up with a list of priorities, the council should automatically include projects that have reached the design phase. Because of the cost involved, "once we've started design, we consider [the project] a commitment," he said. Right-of-way acquisition and construction follow design. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


REPLACEMENT STRATEGY: The Brandywine school board will conduct a nationwide search to find a successor for assistant superintendent Tammy Davis and, when and if needed, for superintendent Bruce Harter, according to a press statement distributed by public information officer Robert Ziegler on behalf of the board. Timing, it said, "will be influenced by Dr. Harter's decisions." Meanwhile, the board has "every confidence that the many exceptional teachers, administrators and staff working for the district will sustain the good work," the statement went on to say.

It said the board "had hoped Dr. Harter would remain in Brandywine," but "understand[s] that strong leaders often look for new challenges and respect[s] his right to make personal career decisions." As Delaforum previously reported, Harter is one of three finalists for the superintendency in the Hamilton County School District in Chattanooga, Tenn. According to an article on the website, county commissioner Bill Hullander wants a local person to be hired. However, it quotes school board chairman Chip Baker as saying that the board is committed to hiring one of the finalists. All three are from elsewhere. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


NO COMMENT: Members of the Brandywine school board would not respond to a Delaforum request to comment on the latest move by superintendent Bruce Harter to obtain a position heading a different school district. As Delaforum previously reported, Harter is one of three finalists for the top administrative post in the Hamilton County School District in Chattanooga, Tenn. It has 40,000 students, which is four times Brandywine's enrollment. Harter also made it to the finals in the superintendent selection process in the Pulaski County district in Little Rock, Ark., and in the Christina district in New Castle County. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


NO COMPETITION: There will be no Brandywine school board election this year. The filing deadline passed on Mar. 3 with no candidate coming forward to challenge incumbent Mark Huxoll in his bid for a second five-year term. Huxoll told Delaforum that he had considered stepping aside, but responded to several parents and community members who expressed concern that he was not seeking another term. He said he was swayed by "their words of support and expression of belief that my service has made some difference for the better." School board members serve without pay.

Huxoll, who is the only one of the seven board members whose term expires at the end of June, said he was elected "at a time when the district was recovering from some pretty heavy turmoil." With that behind, he said, "the district needs to continue to bring in best practices from around the country, aim students toward higher goals, lower the dropout rate and find ways to engage and include those students who previously may have fallen between the cracks." As director of the Temple University music preparatory program, Huxoll administers the Gifted Young Musicians program in collaboration with Philadelphia public schools. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


TAX INCREASE: Emphasizing that he has no intention to seek a 60% or 75% increase in the county property-tax rate, County Executive Christopher Coons said that he is seeking the public's views on how to meet what he regards as a looming financial crisis. "There are difficult choices we (his administration) and County Council face," he said a meeting of officers of areawide civic organizations on Mar. 2. Coons is scheduled to deliver his annual budget address to Council on Mar. 21. It is now a foregone conclusion that he will ask for some revenue enhancement while presenting a relatively lean spending plan.

Council president Paul Clark said that his reading of public sentiment is that people  would rather see higher taxes phased in over the next three years than be hit with a massive hike in 2009. "No one wants to raise taxes, but the reality is that these are the numbers," he added with reference to the forecast that, despite cuts, county government will continue to spend more than it takes in. "People are really happy with the services they are getting; in fact, they want more," Clark said. Frances West, president of the Civic League for New Castle County, suggested that imposing fees or increasing fees for some services might be a way to go. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Also coming up -- on Mar. 6 -- is Coons's announcement of how he would like to proceed to provide sanitary sewers in the southern part of the county. However he decides, it will result in the county's largest-ever capital project.


BROOKVIEW RELOCATION: As many as 110 families displaced by redevelopment of the Brookview apartments complex could find themselves homeless, according to Anne Farley, general manager of the county Department of Community Service. "It's going to be very difficult to find housing for them," she told County Council on Feb. 28. On the other hand, she said, 40 current tenants "have the potential to become home owners." Twelve will be able to transfer Section 8 housing vouchers to new locations. Councilwoman Patty Powell suggested using county-owned vacant properties for relocation "rather than just letting them sit there." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on May 19, 2006

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