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April, 2007

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CIVIC VISIONARY HONORED: Newlin Wood was hailed as a worthy successor to William Bancroft, who founded Woodlawn Trustees, a philanthropic organization, in 1901, to perpetuate his dedication to responsible use of land. Wood is retiring as executive vice president after 41 years with the nonprofit corporation. Woodlawn vice president Elke McGinley said Wood's career was spent exhibiting "genuine interest in making things better" while furthering Bancroft's three-pronged legacy -- providing affordable housing for low-income Wilmingtonians, conserving open space for the public benefit, and fostering compatible residential and commercial development.

Mayor James Baker presented he city's distinguished-citizen award to Wood, who is only the fourth recipient of the highest municipal honor. Fittingly, the tributes came on Apr. 26 at a retirement reception in the result of Wood's and Woodlawn's most recent public-private venture, the new Woodlawn branch of the county library system in west Wilmington. Wood's creativity was cited also as being responsible for projects in Brandywine Hundred ranging from the restaurant complex off Concord Pike near Naamans Road to Brandywine Creek State Park. Among attenders at the event was Stephen Clark, Bancroft's grandson.

    

PAY PLAN BEING WRITTEN: Members of County Council are working with the Coons administration to devise a "comprehensive" pay schedule for non-union county government employees, according to Council president Paul Clark. "It will be fair and equitable and work within our budget," he said. The objective is to eliminate the confused array of pay freezes imposed in an effort to alleviate the county's budget problem, he explained. Councilman Robert Weiner on Apr. 24 tabled a proposed freeze ordinance he sponsored and William Tansey withdrew his. Clark said he is hopeful the new plan can be voted upon at the same time as the budget. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

EXCLUSIVE BUSINESS: The county Department of Land Use will channel all paid advertising of development plans and public hearings to the News Journal if an ordinance introduced into County Council on Apr. 24 is enacted. The measure would eliminate the present practice of also advertising in community newspapers, resulting in a savings of about $172,000 in the coming fiscal year, according to the fiscal note attached to the proposed ordinance sponsored by Councilman George Smiley. Along with signs on the affected property and letters to nearby residents, taking an ad in the daily newspaper is sufficient notice, its preamble said.

    

A member of the financial future taskforce asked County Council to consider tapping the 'rainy day' emergency fund in order to be able to impose a "more modest" real estate tax increase.

Vincent D'Anna, who represented the New Castle County Board of Realtors, a private trade association, on the taskforce, made the suggestion at a special meeting of Council's finance committee called on Apr. 23 to hear directly form the advisory taskforce. D'Anna and Richelle Viable, however, were the only members of the nine-member panel who attended. D'Anna also said he doesn't think "the [Coons] administration took advantage of a number of the opportunities that were available" in terms of revenue-enhancing and cost-cutting options. That, he added, "will convey to the public that the [financial] situation is not as bad as we think it is."

Chief financial officer Michael Strine said using some of the 20% set-aside would provide just a "one-time" infusion of money and "would not address the fiscal problem." He said other taskforce members supported not recommending that be done. The reserve, he said, is intended to "handle a real crisis," such as a catastrophic storm. Councilman William Tansey argued saying, "If this (the financial situation) is not a 'rainy day', I don't know what is." Strine said that approving Coons's budget "will buy us time" to seek authority from the state legislature to take longer-term steps to remedy the county's almost sole dependence on real estate for its income. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Council president Paul Clark argued against "any knee-jerk action", adding that "calmness and sanity will bet us to the point where we want to be."

    

DOING ITS BIT: County Executive Christopher Coons said New Castle County has enlisted in the ranks of local governments seeking to counter global warming. He cited such things as the overhaul of the energy systems in the Redding city-county office building, extensive use of 'green technology' in the soon-to-be-completed public safety building and conversion of the motor vehicle fleet to more fuel-efficient vehicles. He made the comments at a county-sponsored public showing on Apr. 22 of An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary produced by former Vice President Al Gore about the extent of the global warming crisis.

    

The Commonwealth-Setting joint venture will be actively involved in developing Renaissance Village until the project is completed in about six to eight years, according to its chief management official.

In an effort to quell rumors of alleged glitches in the ambitious plan to transform the former Brookview apartment complex into the signature component of a revitalized Claymont, Commonwealth Group senior vice president Robert Ruggio, reassured directors of Claymont Renaissance Development Corp. that things remain on course even though timing has slipped a bit. County Councilman John Cartier confirmed his prediction that the final development plan will be approved in May. "We're still getting the same project. ... There will be no surprises," Brett Saddler, executive director of the development corporation, said after Ruggio's presentation.

Ruggio said at the directors meeting on Apr. 19 that two and possibly three builders with national reputations are ready to sign on as soon as County Council gives its okay. Within about 60 days thereafter, there will be "some movement" on the site, he said. Residences to be built there will sell in the $200,000-to-$300,000 range with some potential purchasers already lined up and a sales office to be opened this summer. He acknowledged that changes in the real estate market have affected the pace of development, but added that the venture partnership has demonstrated its commitment by having already invested some $2 million in engineering and planning. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delafourm article.)

    

The Brandywine school board wants to cut low-income seniors an additional break if voters agree at the Apr. 24 referendum to increase the ceiling on the district's operating tax rate.

The four members of the seven-member board who attended the regular business meeting on Apr. 16 voted unanimously to seek General Assembly authorization to "periodically" increase the amount of assessed property value exempted from the school tax to $40,000. It is now $32,000 from the school levy and $50,000 from county property tax. Single seniors earning less than $15,000 a year and married seniors with total income of less than $19,000 are eligible for the exemption. That is in addition to the up-to-$500 tax credit against school taxes available to all seniors under a state-financed program.

"Without a successful referendum, we will not be in a position to grant [an increased exemption] this year," board vice president Nancy Doorey said. Financial officer David Blowman said doing so would 'cost' the district about $150,000 in new tax revenue not received if voters agree to the combined proposed tax increase. At the meeting, attended by about a dozen residents, superintendent James Scanlon said the proposed maintenance-cost component of the increase, if approved, would also be used to finance putting security cameras on more school buses and improvements to the auditoriums at all three district high schools. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

STORMWATER UTILITY PROMISED: Some members of a 21-person 'focus group' recently began a process which County Executive Christopher Coons said will lead to establishing a stormwater utility for New Castle County. "We thought [one] was worth considering. ... We're asking you to help lay the groundwork from where we'll go forward," he told the group on Apr. 12. A stormwater utility is organizational structure which coordinates activities to control runoff and prevent floods. At present, the group was told, several local, state and federal agencies have various pieces of that responsibility, but act largely independently of each other.

The county Department of Special Services has hired Amec Earth & Environmental Services, an international engineering consultant firm based in London, to recommend a design and a financing method for a utility. Andrew Reese, a vice president, said there are many potential models, but the most successful in the United States are supported by fees based on the amount of impervious surface a property has. David Acey, of U.R.S. Corp., an Amec subcontractor, said various agencies currently spend an average of $19 million a year on stormwater management in the county, a level which he described as being on the low side of 'moderate'.

    

TAX RATES DEFINED: While it contains no surprises, the packet of budget legislation put before County Council provides specific data which property owners can use to calculate to the penny what the pending tax increase will cost. As previously reported, it amounts to an across-the-board 17.5% hike. If Council approves -- and there is virtually no likelihood that it will not -- the rate in unincorporated areas will go from 47.78 for each $100 of assessed value this fiscal year to 56.14. That is scaled down in incorporated areas, depending on county government services received. In Wilmington and Newark it will be 19.49, up from 16.59 this year.

Ordinances introduced on Apr. 9 reveal a proposed average reduction in the street-light tax of 44.1% with rates ranging between 0.45 and 14.25 depending on the kind of poles in the community. The current range is 8.1 to 19.41. The rate to cover the cost of school crossing guards will increase in each public school district in the county with the largest percentage increase -- 119.1% -- to come in the Appoquinimink district. The rate in Brandywine will go up 6% to 1.172  from 1.621. No increase in the fees for sanitary-sewer service has been requested this year. A package of fee increases for 'row office' services has already been enacted. [CLICK HERE to calculate your specific tax.]

    

'IN-LAW SUITES' APPROVED: County Council enacted the accessory dwelling unit ordinance with no room to spare. The seven-to-six vote came on Apr. 10 after Councilman Penrose Hollins, sponsor of the controversial legislation, reiterated a claim that opposition, coming mostly from civic associations, reflected fear and economic, social and perhaps racial bigotry. Bill Dunn, of the Milltown-Limestone Civic Alliance, said he was offended by that charge adding that his civic 'umbrella' group is on record as supporting moderate- and low-income housing in its area.

Public testimony followed the previous pattern. Supporters such as Robert Hall, of the Delmarva Ecumenical Council, said it will provide independent-living opportunities "for our burgeoning senior population." Chuck Landry, of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, said it will undermine zoning laws and put property values at risk. Voting in favor of the measure were Hollins, John Cartier, Stephanie McClellan, William Powers, Jea Street, David Tackett and Robert Weiner; opposed were Bill Bell, Paul Clark, Joseph Reda, Timothy Sheldon, George Smiley and William Tansey. [CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.]

    

COST-SAVING MOVE DISPUTED: Administration officials attempted to convince members of County Council that breaking up the community governing office and reassigning its eight-person staff to four operating departments could actually result in better services for county neighborhoods. But at least one councilman wasn't buying that. "How are departments that are already stretched out and losing people going to do that?" David Tackett asked rhetorically at a budget hearing on Apr. 9. Chief administrative officer Jeff Bullock claimed that the move will "make something better and do it [more] cheaply."

Financial officer Michael Strine testified that transferring the worker who handles billing for maintenance organizations to his office will provide an eventual opportunity to rationalize and streamline that mostly-manual operation. Council president Paul Clark, however, questioned why a relatively small group of such organizations receive that service without charge in the first place. Strine also told the hearing that property owners in communities with street lights can expect a "significant reduction" in the light tax in the coming year because Delmarva Power was held to a 59% electricity rate increase rather than allowed to more than double the charge.

Last updated on April 27, 2007

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