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December, 2006

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OPEN SPACE CONTROL: The Department of Land Use will ask County Council to tighten control over developers providing open space and common areas and turning it over to community management. A proposed ordinance now in draft form would require preparation of open space to be completed before permits are issued for the final 10% of the building lots and for it to be inspected for compliance with the development plan and for such things as safety, preservation of trees, and removal of construction material and debris. Developers would have to escrow money to assure that they live up to their related obligations.

    

SLOWDOWN COMING: Delaware and national economies are headed for a slowdown during the next two years, but the state's official forecasting panel was assured that it's likely to be a 'soft landing' rather than a recession. Delaware Economic & Financial Advisory Council turned bearish at its meeting on Dec. 18 and lopped $20.9 million off the state revenue forecast for the current fiscal year that it made in September and $23 million off the fiscal 2008 projection. Nevertheless, the council expects the state to take in $3,394.4 million this year, up 2.8% from fiscal 2007 and for revenue to grow 3.3% next year.

Economist Fred Dixon told the council that, although two key indicators -- housing starts and the spread between long- and short-term interest rates -- point to recession, he does not expect anything severe. "This is a little bit of a hiccup, but it's not a sharp slowdown," revenue committee chairman Ken Lewis said. Personal income and corporate franchise taxes are expected to decline while the bank franchise tax grows. Citing "serious safety issues with the Chester site," he said slot-machine gambling in Pennsylvania will not have as large an adverse impact as previously thought. Also, he added, the falloff in real estate transfer tax is less than expected.

    

GOOD MARKS: County government finances are in good shape and internal controls to prevent abuse are "stronger than that of governments of similar size and complexity," according to the annual independent audit of its books for the fiscal year ended last June 30. Only two minor glitches were discovered and both are easily correctable, Keith Novak, a partner in Clifton Gunderson l.l.p., said. He did caution that regulatory change will require that, beginning in fiscal 2008, retirees' health care benefits be funded when earned instead of when paid, increasing  liability from the present $3 million to somewhere between $6 million and $20 million.

    

WEAPON OF CHOICE: All county police officers on patrol will carry Taser stun guns as soon as about 100 more are obtained and more officers are trained in their use, Chief Rick Gregory told County Council's public safety committee on Dec. 12. At present, 114 units are in service and 130 officers are  trained in their use, Sgt. Frank Robinson said. Both men had nothing but praise for the weapon, which emits a disabling electric charge and  has been controversial in some jurisdictions. Robinson said it has been used here 376 times without serious ill effects. "It's a very good intermediate [-force] weapon," he said.

    

TAX CAP: Legislation was introduced into County Council to repeal the 5% limit on the amount of a property tax increase the county executive can request. With a virtual certainty that the Coons administration will determine that a larger hike will be needed in the coming fiscal year to balance the budget, the move had been expected. It is somewhat academic, however, because the existing limit only applies to what the executive can request and does not restrict what Council can enact. That would result in a complicated situation in which two widely different budgets would have to be offered for consideration. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

PARTICIPATION INVITED: The proposed updated comprehensive plan will be introduced into County Council on Dec. 12 and the approval process begun right after the turn of the year with hearings before the Planning Board scheduled for Jan. 2 and 9. Noting that he was struck by "about how little active participation there was" during the drafting phase, County Executive Christopher Coons said he would like to see a fairly broad cross-section of residents turn out to express their views. To facilitate that, the county is about to distribute a more easily digested six-page summary of the major changes in policy advocated in  the 196-page plan. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Legislating an overturn or significant delay of the pending yard waste ban would set a "dangerous precedent," according to James Werner, director of air and waste management.

"It's troubling. ... Where do you draw the line between that and a refinery?" the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control official said during a informational presentation before County Council's special services committee on Dec. 5. Responding to the widely held assumption that Representative Wayne Smith will introduce such legislation as soon as the General Assembly convenes in January, he said it would usurp the department's authority to impose environmental regulations. The ban is a condition of a permit allowing Delaware Solid Waste Authority to expand the Cherry Island Marsh landfill.

Werner said residents will have "a hundred solutions" for any problems in disposing of such waste. Most, he said, will emanate from small businesses collecting and disposing of clippings, tree limbs, leaves and the like. His division also is seeking sites to set up communal composting operations. Councilman George Smiley said he has been told that major trash-hauling firms will be offering their customers collection plans when uncertainty about whether the ban will remain in force is ended. Right now, he said, "they're reluctant to commit to buying equipment or hiring people until they find out what the legislature is going to do." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Council president Paul Clark chided the division for a poor job of publicly launching the ban. "I don't think it could [have been] bungled any worse than this," he said.

    

COMPREHENSIVE PLAN: A 196-page draft of a plan envisioning New Castle County in 2030 has been posted on the county government website. State law requires that municipal and county governments adopt updated development plans every five years. County Council is scheduled to vote on the update in March following hearings by the Planning Board and receipt of public comments. Charles Baker, general manager of the Department of Land Use, recently told Council that, in an effort to hold down costs, only a limited number of printed copies will be selectively distributed.

According to a press statement issued on Nov. 30 by County Executive Christopher Coons's office, the main feature of the proposed plan is to establish a 'new community development area' south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and 'community redevelopment areas' along major highways in the northern portion of the county. The plan also "proposes allowing more flexibility in design by increasing the number of housing units allowed per acre in limited areas and allowing mixed-use development in some areas," the statement said. 'Targeting' new growth, it said, will protect "the character of our community." (CLICK HERE to access the complete plan.

    

CUT THE MERCURY: The Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control ordered Claymont Steel to reduce the amount of vaporized mercury emitted by its plant by 90% "as soon as practical, but not later than Dec. 31, 2008." The order follows disclosure that actual emissions were significantly higher than the company had said they were. Under the order, the volume will be tested every three months. The department also is beginning a "cooperative program to encourage salvage dealers to remove mercury switches from vehicles" before they are reduced to scrap steel, according to a press statement issued on Nov. 30. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on December 19,  2006

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