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November, 2006

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County Council agreed to tighten some of the rules governing pensions for county government employees hired in the future. Present rules remain in force for current employees.

The main change requires them to be on the payroll for at least 10 years instead of five for their right to a pension to be vested. Most employees can elect to retire and receive a portion of their salary at age 62 after 10 years of service, age 60 after 15 years, or at any age after 30 years. Police officers can retire after 20 years. Employees who previously worked for another government entity can 'buy into' a county pension at the time they retire with an up-front payment of its additional accrual value at that time. Presently, employees can do that during their first year for a considerably lower amount.

During extensive discussion at a finance committee meeting before Council voted at its plenary session on Nov. 28, financial officer Michael Strine said the revisions will significantly lessen the county's pension obligations. Councilman David Tackett, who sponsored the ordinance, said it "stops the bleeding of the pension fund." Susan Amadio, a retired county employee and a former trustee of the pension fund, told the committee that pension rules were changed during the administration of County Executive Denis Greenhouse, primarily to benefit political appointees.

    

IS THAT FAIR?

If taken literally, this sign warns that customers who obey the rules are in for rather rude treatment.

    

aWAIVER GIVEN: Brandywine School District again has fallen short of meeting the state limit on class size in primary grades, but came closer than ever before this academic year. Financial officer David Blowman told the school board on Nov. 20 that only 18 of 150 kindergarten, first-, second- and third-grade classrooms have more than 22 students. All but one of those have 23 and that one has 24, he reported. Last year, 24 classrooms were not in compliance. In 2002 there were 48. Average primary-grade class size across the district is 19.5, he said. As permitted by the law, the school board granted a waiver from the limit.

Craig Gilbert announced that he will step down as board president in January but will remain on the panel. When he was re-elected to the top office last July, he aid he would serve in the post only until a new superintendent was hired and settled into the position. Rather than simply have vice president Nancy Doorey move up, he set a two-month process for the board to nominate and elect his successor and, if necessary, a new vice president. Gilbert said professional and business obligations do not allow him sufficient time to fulfill the duties involved with being president. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

HERE TO STAY: Although it still has not found a permanent home, American College publicly expressed a commitment to be part of the economic redevelopment of Claymont. At a community and media event on Nov. 20 Donald Ross, president of American College Dublin, said the choice of Claymont as the location of its U.S. campus was motivated both by a desire to be part of the community's 'renaissance' and to be situated in a midst of a region offering "historic, cultural and modern-day venues all extremely attractive to students from around the United States and abroad."

He told Delaforum the college is still awaiting a decision by the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington about its offer to buy either the Holy Rosary conference center on Philadelphia Pike or the site of the former Children's Home on Green Street. Now in leased quarters opposite the Holy Rosary property, American College this academic year added four-year bachelor degree programs in hospitality management and human services. Originally established in Ireland in 1993 to offer American students a 'learning abroad' experience, it granted its first U.S. class two-year diplomas in hospitality management earlier this calendar year. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

County Executive Christopher Coons has ordered implementation of  a plan which he said will cut county government spending this fiscal year by about $5 million.

A press statement issued on Nov. 15 said lower fuel costs, restructuring debt service and lower than expected salaries and benefits costs, when coupled with the plan, should cover an anticipated $10 million shortfall in projected revenue. In addition to a 10% across-the-board reduction in departments' operating budgets, exclusive of wages and benefits which for the most part are set by labor contracts, the plan includes a freeze on filling vacant positions other than in public safety and code enforcement; elimination of non-mandatory overtime and compensatory time; and cutting the next planned bond issue in half to $25 million.

Those steps, the statement quoted Coons as saying, are "necessary ... as we work to correct our structural financial deficit in the longer term." As previously reported, a taskforce is scheduled to present by the turn of the year a set of  recommendations for some fundamental changes in county government's revenue-generating capacity. Under study are such things as a possible general reassessment to bring property valuation into line with market values; 'outsourcing' operation of some county assets such as Rockwood and Carousel Parks; and increasing or imposing fees for some county services. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

'Who's on first?' has nothing on the current sports page. It seems the New York Met have traded Royce Ring and Heath Bell to the San Diego Padres.

    

CUTS ORDERED: General managers of county government departments have been directed to reduce spending under current operating budgets by 10% to help offset a decline in anticipated revenue, primarily from the real estate transfer tax. County Executive Christopher Coons declined comment prior to public disclosure of the expected interim plan to deal with the situation scheduled for Nov. 15. County Council members reportedly were briefed on the plan in meetings with the executive on Nov. 14. Council cannot enact any revenue measures to take effect prior to the start of the next fiscal year on July 1. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

NEW COUNCIL MEMBERS:

Stephanie McClellan and Bill Powell were sworn in as members of New Castle County Council and took their seats for their first session on Nov. 14. Under state law, Council members' four-year terms begin immediately after their elections are certified as official.

    

NO REWARDS YET: Brandywine School District has not paid any of the $250 rewards offered in connection with a rash of false bomb reports at Mount Pleasant High and Hanby Middle Schools nor has it been determined if any will be paid. Spokesman Rob Ziegler told Delaforum that the rewards are "contingent on successful prosecution and conviction." He said he is unaware if there has been any court action involving the four students charged in the incidents and declined to disclose if there has been any scholastic disciplinary action. There have been no bomb scares at district schools since the arrests, he said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

WE TOLD YOU SO:  None other than the New York Times has confirmed Delaforum's commentary the other day to the effect  that it's not a good idea to name ball parks after banks. It can be argued that teams win or lose based on the quality of their players, not the name on the park, and that bank stocks go up or down because of their profits, not because of what in most cases is a relatively small part of their merchandising budget. But it aint necessarily so.  As old Casey used to say, "You can look it up." CLICK HERE to do so in the Times. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum commentary.)

    

TIMETABLE:   The next-to-last Blue Ball road-building project -- connecting Augustine Cut-off to the west park drive -- is underway with completion scheduled in autumn, 2007. The last one -- rebuilding the Concord Pike-Interstate 95 interchange --  is still on hold with Delaware Department of Transportation planning to put it out to bid in autumn, 2008. The historic dairy barn, originally scheduled to be opened the public last month, is now set to open at the end of February. Opening of a handicapped-accessible playground in the recreation area along the east park drive is set for July, 2007, and the four sports fields there by the summer of 2008. (CLICK HERE to access the Blue Ball project website.)

    

CHALLENGE: Verizon has filed a petition with the county Board of Assessment Review seeking to reduce its property valuation by $89.8 million, or 47% of its current $190.2 million assessment. If granted, the appeal would result in a reduction of as much as approximately $90,000 in the firm's property tax bill, depending upon how its property is distributed between unincorporated areas and municipalities. Verizon argues that the assessment, which is based on 1983 market values, does not allow for depreciation over the years in the value of the property. The valuation it proposes is calculated by assuming 5% annual depreciation.

Not allowing for depreciation "may have been acceptable" when the company was a regulated utility, its petition said. It then enjoyed a monopoly with rates set by the Public Service Commission with a guaranteed profit based on return on investment. That meant its customers paid the amount now deemed inappropriate. While significant in its own right, the appeal called attention to the fact that Comcast, as a cable-television provider, is exempt from paying county property tax on poles, wires and other distribution assets. The exemption is worth an estimated $200,000 to $300,000 annually in tax not due. Verizon recently entered the cable business.

    

NEW PRESIDENT: Charles Landry has been advanced from vice president to succeed Harvey Rubenstein as president of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred. Rubenstein, who became head of the 'umbrella' civic association in July, told Delaforum that he found that his other activities did not allow him sufficient time to devote to the civic position. Landry is chairman of the council's 'aviation noise' committee and has represented it in several community-volunteer capacities with the Brandywine School District. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Did anyone happen to notice that Rhode Island voters elected Sheldon WHITEHOUSE to be their U.S. senator. Could they be trying to tell us something?

    

RETURNING FOR ANOTHER TRY: County Councilman Timothy Sheldon has agreed to take another crack at coming up with legislation to regulate parking boats and recreational vehicles in residential areas. Council president Paul Clark said two other Council members -- whom he declined to identify -- are considering joining the effort. It is likely, Clark said, that the controversial issue is not likely to come back to Council before the turn of the year. Meanwhile, he added, enforcement of the related provision in the county property maintenance code will remain suspended. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

LAWSUIT SETTLED: County Council policy director James Boyle confirmed that the discrimination lawsuit filed by former county auditor Robert Hicks against Council and its members has been settled out of court. Continuing to defend against the suit would cost upward of $200,000, he said in a press statement issued on Nov. 2. The statement said only that the settlement was for "a nominal amount," but it reportedly was for $20,000. In return, the statement said, Hicks agreed to acknowledge that he was not fired for 'whistleblowing'. Hicks did not respond to a Delaforum request for comment.

    

DAY OF RECKONING: New Castle County government "will run out of money" on or about Election Day in 2008 -- when a majority of County Council members will be up for re-election --  if current revenue and spending patterns are not changed, according to chief financial officer Michael Strine. That is when the budget reserve, exclusive of the 'rainy day fund' to deal with a major unanticipated emergency, will run out. A sharp decline in receipts from the real estate transfer tax -- down 16.5% in the first three months of the fiscal year and off 21% in October -- more than offset revenue generated by the 5% property tax rate increase, he said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on November 29,  2006

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