February, 2007

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MIXED ADVICE: The Planning Board recommended that County Council reject proposed accessory dwelling unit legislation while the Department of Land Use has recommended that the ordinance be enacted. Land use general manager Charles Baker announced those decisions at a Council committee meeting on Feb. 27, but would gave no details about the respective reasoning pending 'release' of the written reports. The ordinance, which would permit modifying or expanding existing houses to provide separate living quarters, could come before Council for a vote at its Mar. 13 session. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


PAY FREEZE REJECTED: County Councilman William Tansey urged Council to follow the example of County Executive Christopher Coons and bar pay raises for its members, legislative aides and other appointed staff, but most of his colleagues weren't buying into the idea. Only Stephanie McClellan supported him when he proposed the freeze at a meeting of the finance committee on Feb. 27. "How can we go to the public and say 'You guys have to tighten your belt' when we don't tighten our belt?" he asked rhetorically. A draft budget which the committee then approved calls for spending $1,755,291 for wages in fiscal 2008, up 6% from $1,655,611 this year.

Council president Paul Clark said staff salaries "parallel a majority of the [county] workforce" since they traditionally follow results of collective bargaining by county unions. Penrose Hollins cautioned against "a knee-jerk reaction that doesn't achieve what we want to achieve" with regard to holding down spending to stave off a budget crisis. "I don't believe we can balance the budget on the backs of our employees," George Smiley said. McClellan argued that Council will be hard put to "ask for a double-digit tax increase when we pay 13% more than comparable jobs in the private and public sectors." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


The Brandywine school board appeared agreeable to asking district residents to approve a 38.2 increase in the operating-tax ceiling while promising not to seek another boost for at least five years.

The board, which received the recommendation from its financial advisory committee at a meeting on Feb. 26, did not take a poll, but no member questioned, let alone disputed, the reasoning behind the recommendation or the bottom line. Committee member Barbara Schoenberg told them they have a "fiduciary obligation to the residents of this district to give them a [fiscally] sound school district." Chief financial officer David Blowman said a tax increase of that magnitude is "absolutely essential" in order to provide the "financial stability" necessary to maintain the quality of education offered in the district.

The only part of the committee's recommendation that seemed to raise possible objection was that the new rate be imposed immediately rather than phased in. "We want to make sure we're only asking for what we need," board vice president Nancy Doorey said. President Craig Gilbert asked superintendent James Scanlon to come up with a proposal "to restrict the use of funds" which might be accumulated during the early years. Schoenberg said, however, that the rate will not generate income significantly beyond what is needed. "The goal here isn't to make us rich and happy," she said. [CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.]

The proposal will be presented at public meetings on Mar. 5 and 6 at P.S. du Pont and Brandywine High, respectively, and voted on at a board meeting on Mar. 12. The referendum will be held on Apr. 24.


PRICY HOUSING: The "cheapest house you can build in New Castle County" has to carry a $400,000 pricetag, Darell Craig, senior project manager for Toll Brothers, told County Council's economic development committee. County and state fees, coupled with the length of the approval process, add $22,532 more to the cost of a house here than a comparable one in the adjacent Pennsylvania counties, he said at a meeting on Feb. 26. In addition, he said, the proposed new water management code will add an estimated $6,000 to $18,000 to the cost of site improvements to a lot that would accommodate a single-family house.


Whoever buys the former Brookview Apartments property will also be buying into the Renaissance Village development plan and agreement.

Both Councilmen John Cartier and Robert Weiner told Delaforum that they will staunchly oppose any effort to substantially modify either. "Small modifications that improve the new-urbanist plan are worth considering, but I will never support wholesale design of the project or gutting of parts or all of the development agreement," Cartier said. Weiner said he is "reasonably satisfied that the project as presented will be approved by County Council," adding that he "would not support a modification." Any proposed changes would have to go through the county's subdivision process, including review by the Claymont Design Review Advisory Council.

A key component of the agreement is that the eventual developer include 10% 'affordable' housing in the project and acquire and develop a corresponding amount off site. Although the real estate listing said the site carries 'by-right' development status, that is not presently correct. The final form of the plan must be approved by County Council after the Department of Land Use signs off on it. At that stage, Council can only return it to the department for further technical work. Apparently the only unresolved point has to do with the state fire marshal's call for wider-than-planned streets. Council is expected to have the plan before it in March or April. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Cartier said demolition of the Brookview apartment buildings "should occur this spring or summer." Construction timing evidently will be up to the new developer.


WALL DECISION APPEALED: Some Paladin Club residents and the ad-hoc organization they formed to fight a bid by Edgewood Village l.l.c., an affiliate of Pettinaro Construction, to build 19 townhouses in the condominium complex have asked the state Supreme Court to set aside a Superior Court decision that the Board of Adjustment acted within its authority when it overruled the land use general manager's order that the developer restore a stone wall deemed to be historic. The petitioners argue that state law clearly gives the Planning Board jurisdiction in subdivision matters which, they say, were involved in this long-running  dispute. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


ON THE MARKET: Delaforum has confirmed that the Commonwealth-Setting joint venture is seeking one or more developers to purchase Renaissance Village, the renamed Brookview Apartments complex. The 67-acre property is listed with Coldwell Banker Commercial Ideal Realty, the firm which previously brokered its sale to Commonwealth Group. The nationwide listing notes it carries by-right approval from county government for a density of up to 1,226 residential units and more than 40,000 square feet of retail and commercial space and that its redevelopment has widespread community support.  The deadline for proposals is Feb. 28. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


LONG-TERM PLAN APPROVED: Brandywine School District has set a goal of having 93% of all ninth-grade students graduate from high school with their class and closing the 'achievement gap' between whites and  'children of color' to no more than 13 percentage points when measured by the state testing program by 2012. Those are the most significant points added to the district's long-range strategic plan before it was unanimously approved by the school board. Estimated cost to implement the plan during the next five years is about $4.5 million, part of which can come from reallocating some resources.

Superintendent James Scanlon told the board before it voted at a special meeting on Feb. 12 that the district has achieved significant results in terms of improved student achievement from the present plan, which runs out with the close of this academic year in June. Board vice president Nancy Doorey said putting financing for the plan before the public as a specified component of the tax referendum likely to be held in May will "let our community make a conscious decision if we're going this way." Paying for the plan will be in addition to meeting higher operating costs and "preserving the financial integrity" of the district, she said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delafourm article.)


County government should begin negotiating with unions representing most of its workers a year before their contracts expire in an effort to enlist support for reducing personnel costs.

That appeared to be a consensus among members of the Financial Future Taskforce during a brainstorming session on Feb. 8 to begin the process of coming up with recommendations for reducing spending in the largest component of the operating budget. "The cuts are going to be significant. ... Employees have to be asked to give up something and the citizens are going to have to give up something," said taskforce member Vincent D'Anna. Pete Ross said the situation calls for fundamental long-term changes "or another group will be back ... two or three years from now doing what we're doing now."

Panel members raised the possibility of tapping the so-called 'rainy day' fund to offset part of the expected budget shortfall and questioned whether the emergency reserve needs to be as much as 20% of the budget. Chief financial officer Michael Strine said that ratio is "at the high end" of what other local governments set aside, but not out of line considering the limited sources of county revenue. He denied an implication in a recent newspaper editorial that the magnitude of the drop in revenue from the real estate transfer tax has been exaggerated. That, he said, was an erroneous conclusion published without the author's having bothered to verify its validity.  (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)


DON'T ASK ME: "I have no idea who the next President of the United States is going to be," Delaware's sole congressman admitted to an audience of seniors -- right after he completed a litany of those he doesn't expect to be sitting in the White House two years from now. But if anybody at the University of Delaware Academy of Lifelong Learning was listening closely to Mike Castle's response to a question from the audience on Feb. 5, they might have the idea he's sort of looking for a race between John Edwards -- "He has the experience [and] could be a factor" -- and John McCain -- "He's strongly pushing the 'surge'."

Colleague Joe Biden -- "All of us who know Joe really like him, [but] he's not in the top tier" -- and Barack Obama -- "He has a message, but doesn't have the experience" -- aren't likely, Castle said. Frontrunner Hillary Clinton is "clearly the odds-on favorite, but I'm not 100% sure she's going to get there," he said adding that he doesn't "put her in quite the same class" as her former-President husband when it comes to qualifications. In his own Republican party, Castle said, Rudy Giuliani will have "problems getting the nomination" and Mitt Romney has a knack of "changing his position on too many issues" to be a viable candidate.


COMPOSTING WHERE?: The county Department of Land Use is preparing legislation defining where composting operations can be located. General manager Charles Baker said the Uniform Development Code has no such provisions. With the ban on dumping yard waste in the Cherry Island Marsh landfill in effect, "that's something we ought to address," he said. "There is no problem with mulching in residential areas, but composting gets a little bit more odiferous." The state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control has presented composting, both private and commercial, as an alternative to dumping grass, leaves and such.

Meanwhile, state representative Wayne Smith told Delaforum he intends to bring his proposed legislation to revoke the yard waste ban before the full House of Representatives for a vote when the General Assembly reconvenes in March after its six-week budget break. He did not do so before the recess, he said, because he anticipated a lengthy debate and there wasn't time for that. Representative Diana McWilliams has said she will offer an amendment that would delay enforcement of the ban but not repeal it. Smith's measure would permit expansion of the landfill; McWilliams's would keep its presently permitted height in effect. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on February 28, 2007

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