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January, 2007

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BILLS IN THE MAIL: County residents are about to receive bills for sanitary sewer service and will be expected to pay in full. But after this year they probably will not be asked to pay more for several years. Chief financial officer Michael Strine told County Council's finance committee on Jan. 23 that the two-payment plan used last year has been dropped. Fewer than a third of the payers took advantage of  it and not having to make a second mailing will save money, he said. Putting the service on a pay-as-you-go basis two years ago has resulted in establishing a reserve he projects will not to run out until some time in the 2011-12 fiscal year.

    

County government workers are not overpaid, but greatly outdistance their peers in the public and private sectors when it comes to raises, medical insurance and pension benefits.

The taskforce studying ways to ward off a budget crisis received that confirmation of what many observers have long believed was the case in a 47-page report presented to it by Kennedy & Rand, a Bethesda, Md.-based consulting firm, on Jan. 22. In particular, Tom Rand said, the county lags well behind other employers in the amount it requires its worker to put up as their share of the cost of their benefit package. Depending upon which medical plan they have, they contribute between half of 1% and 3.9%, compared to 19% in other governments and 23% in private businesses.

During the past five years, wages here have gone up at an annualized rate of 6.5% compared to 3.88% nationally and 4.5% in the District of Columbia. Overall, however, the consultants concluded, after a job-by-job comparison involving 60 representative positions, New Castle County wages average 13% higher, but said that is only slightly above what is deemed to be competitive with other employers. On the other hand, the spread in the employees' cost of family medical plans is so great that 72% of county workers whose spouses are employed elsewhere take that coverage. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

The county's policy of allowing employees to 'cash out' all their accumulated sick leave and vacation time when they retire is something not found elsewhere, Rand said.

    

HE'LL STAY: Craig Gilbert reluctantly agreed to remain president of the Brandywine school board after his colleagues publicly urged him to reconsider a previously announced decision to step aside. In an apparently surprise move at the board's meeting on Jan. 22, Mark Huxsoll said Gilbert's leadership is needed to steer the campaign to persuade voters to approve a tax increase at a referendum this spring and to get the district started on implementing its new five-year strategic plan. Although Joseph Brumskill said "the success of the referendum does not depend on one man," he stopped short of opposing the idea taken up by the other five board members.

Gilbert said he came to the meeting fully intending to give up the leadership, although remaining a board member. He said his professional duties involve a considerable amount of travel and he will require other board members to shoulder a greater share of the obligations of the volunteer position. "We will step up our level of support," said vice president Nancy Doorey. Gilbert then said that he would yield to "the desire of the board [and] stay on." He told Delaforum after the meeting that he has not yet decided whether he will seek a second five-year term when his seat is up for election in May. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

UP FOR SALE:

Mike and John DeCostanza are seeking a buyer for a veritable Claymont institution -- both the property and the business. The brothers have operated Joe & Tony's Service on Philadelphia Pike since 1967 and 1972, respectively. The service station business dates back to 1928 and is believed to be the longest continuous operation with the same brand name in the industry. It has, in fact, long outlasted Gulf Oil Corp., which was acquired by Standard Oil of California in 1984. That company retained the brand name, which dated to 1907. In a letter distributed to customers, the DeCostanzas said they will continue their fuel and auto repair business until the assets are sold, adding that they don't know how soon that may be.

    

The Brandywine school board is about to get some good news: The district can likely get through the year without having to make significant spending cuts.

The district finance committee will recommend amending the budget the board passed in December to project a $2 million carry-forward when the fiscal year ends June 30. That is a $709,000 boost from what finance officer David Blowman said then would enable the district to "just squeak by" until a tax increase residents will be asked to approve takes hold. The additional breathing room, Blowman told the committee on Jan. 17, is the result of higher-than-expected tax revenue and interest income, lower energy costs and a decision to tap into the food service account. In no way, he said, does it result from his "making rosy projections to close the gap."

"I'm glad we can do it without hitting principals' budgets or education-support services," he added. An additional $234,000 in tax revenue, he explained, probably reflects new property coming on line and more aggressive collection of delinquent taxes by county government. Warmer than usual weather and conservation measures have 'saved' $150,000. The average interest rate on invested funds is 4.87% this year compared to 3.63% last year. Charging the financially autonomous food service operation a proportionate share of overhead costs will produce $183,000 without requiring an increase in prices charged for school lunches, he said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

ACTION POSTPONED: Majority leader Wayne Smith delayed consideration by the state House of Representatives of his proposed legislation to cancel the yard-waste ban. He said he did not want to interfere with consideration -- and passage -- of a bill to make extensive changes in the state's workers compensation system. Representative Diana McWilliams said she will introduce an amendment to Smith's measure that would postpone enforcement of the ban until June 1 rather than do away with it. Her proposal also would bar a further increase in the height of the Cherry Island Marsh landfill, which Smith's measure would allow. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

BIRTHDAY TOAST:

Mayor James Baker (center), a self-professed teetotaler, makes an exception to lift a glass to the 175th anniversary of the state legislature having elevated Wilmington from a borough to a city on Jan. 18, 1832. Joining him are Matt Day (back to the camera), of Twin Lakes Brewing Co., and James Mallios, of Costa's restaurant, where the mayor hosted a reception to first tap a locally brewed ale commemorating the anniversary. The observance will culminate on Mar. 7 when City Council is scheduled to hold a special session in Old Town Hall to mark the date on which their long-ago predecessors formally accepted the charter.

    

The state House of Representatives is expected to vote Jan. 17 on a bill to cancel the controversial ban on sending yard waste to the Cherry Island Marsh landfill.

The energy committee cleared the measure for immediate floor action with a six-to-three recommendation for approval after listing to a debate between Wayne Smith, its sponsor, and natural resources secretary John Hughes. Smith charged that the ban subjects residents to needless additional expense and inconvenience without providing any significant environmental benefit. Hughes called it "an easy first step" toward extending the life of the dump. Observers believe the bill has a better-than-even chance for passage by the House, but faces longer odds in the Senate and a possible rare governor's veto.

Several committee members, including Smith, said they oppose the ban as a piecemeal approach to what should be mandatory statewide recycling. Hughes said he doesn't "believe the state of Delaware will not [eventually] engage in meaningful recycling," adding that his department is preparing another version of such legislation for introduction during this legislative session. Representative Diana McWilliams, who represents the area where the landfill is located, said it "does not make much sense" to dwell just on handling yard waste when much more is needed to minimize the impact the landfill has on neighboring communities.

Representative George Carey closed the discussion on an even more controversial note when he remarked, "We have to find a way to burn the stuff" -- suggesting that now-banned incineration is the ultimate solution.

    

LONG-RANGE PLAN: Denise Jacono, principal of Holy Rosary parochial school, said that at least maintaining current enrollment is the key to determining whether the school remains open. "If we have [an average of] 25 kids in each classroom, we can pay our bills," she told about 150 attenders at a parents' meeting on Jan. 16. The gathering was called partly to celebrate overturn of a diocesan decision of merge the school with neighboring St. Helena, to present a long-range plan for financing and operating the facility, and to "put a lid on the rumor mill." She said, "If we all work together, we'll be here a long time."

Jacono presented a generalized summary of the plan, drafted as a proposal for a consolidated school in Claymont which now has to be adjusted for applicability to a single-parish school. The bottom line, she said, is "we're trying to help you afford a Catholic education for your children." Included in the plan are an increase in financial assistance, possible establishment of a pre-school, improvements to the building, a marketing campaign, and expansion of extracurricular and enrichment activities. There was no audience-participation discussion at the meeting, but answers were given to what were said to be several frequently-asked questions. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

IT HAS A NAME: 'Renaissance Village' has been selected as the name for the new community to be built in place of the former Brookview apartments complex. Brett Saddler, president of Claymont Renaissance Development Corp., said that "the housing slump has affected the speed at which the project has moved along," but that "everything is still on track." Demolition of the existing buildings has been pushed back to late spring or early summer. Meanwhile, a search is underway to find a suitable builder with a national reputation. Soon to be made public, he said, is a "three-dimension visual" of what the redeveloped site will look like. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Holy Rosary and St. Helena parishioners will determine whether the respective parochial schools will close, according to the Catholic diocese's school superintendent.

Contrary to some original impressions, the parishes were not simply granted an extension of the year they were originally given to decide which of the two would be the venue for combining their enrollments. "We still favor a consolidated school as the way to maintain sustainability," Cathy Weaver told Delaforum. "[But] it'll be up to both parishes to independently support [their] school program." She added that that mandate applies not only to financial support but also to providing "a quality [education] that truly serves their families and children." All parochial schools are required to follow diocesan guides and meet its curriculum standards, she explained.

With a few special exceptions -- which do not apply to the eastern Brandywine Hundred parishes -- the schools are supported entirely by students' families and parishioner contributions. Basic tuition, set by the schools, is $3,780 at Holy Rosary and $3,980 at St. Helena. Weaver said a committee which reviewed the original recommendation to merge the schools gave the edge to Holy Rosary, but backed off from deciding to implement that because of strenuous opposition. "Both parishes made strong cases," she said. Nevertheless, they were directed to continue discussing eventual merger without a deadline for doing so being imposed. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Holy Rosary's current enrollment, 230, is down slightly from 233 last year and 238 in the 2004-05 academic year. St. Helena's has dropped to 159 from 178 and 185, respectively.

    

Brandywine School District has proposed an intense effort during the next five years to significantly exceed state and national education standards.

The long-range plan which the school board is expected to approve in February envisions 92% of students meeting or exceeding state standards by 2012 and 60% of them passing International Baccalaureate Program or advanced placement courses. The federal No Child Left Behind Act currently calls for 89% of all public school students to be up to standards five years from now. Superintendent James Scanlon told a public meeting on the district's proposed plan that "every dollar we have has to be spent on these goals." Financing the plan will be a key component of the proposal the district will take to referendum this spring.

As Delaforum previously reported, the plan is expected to cost more than $4.8 million over the next five years in addition to what is spent on normal operations. The biggest part of that, $1 million, would be spent on replacing and upgrading computer equipment in order to make more extensive use of instructional technology. Realigning curriculum is estimated to cost $936,000, which includes $600,000 to cover the district's share of the cost of fully implementing the statewide full-day kindergarten program. Recruiting, supporting and retaining quality teachers and administrators is priced at $625,000. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Scanlon said the ultimate objective is to be "one of the premier school districts not just in the state of Delaware but in the entire region."

    

STEPPING DOWN: Richard Przywara has resigned, effective Jan. 31, as general manager of the county Department of Special Services to become executive director of the West Chester University Foundation. County Executive Christopher Coons appointed Tracy Surles, an engineer with the department, to be acting general manager. Przywara came from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where he was an assistant vice president, to be chief of staff when Coons took office two years ago. The department manages the county sanitary sewer system and is responsible for building projects.

    

CAP LIFTED: County Council voted 10-to-three to repeal the 5% ceiling on the size of a property-tax increase that County Executive can seek when he submits his proposed fiscal 2008 budget in March. The vote came on Jan. 9 after extensive discussion at a meeting of the finance committee before the plenary session. George Smiley, acting chairman of the committee, which includes all Council members, told his colleagues that repeal was necessary in order to properly weigh administration proposals to deal with what it terms a looming fiscal crisis. "It doesn't necessarily mean you support anything more than [a] 5% [increase]," he said.

William Bell argued strongly in favor of at least imposing a higher ceiling -- perhaps 10% -- but voted for total repeal. He told Delaforum he did so after hearing reasons the fiscal study taskforce and finance director cited in support of doing so. Timothy Sheldon, however, listed several spending-cut alternatives he charged the administration has not pursued and voted 'no'. Jea Street said county government is not justified in going to taxpayers to, in effect, underwrite years of "giving money away" on a variety of examples of lavish spending. William Tansey said simply, "I don't think we ought to raise taxes at all." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

ETHICS CODE CHANGES REJECTED: Council on Jan. 9 turned down two proposals to change the ethics code governing conduct of county government officials and employees. On a six-six tie vote with one abstention a measure to give the ethics committee discretionary power to inform a person that a complaint had been lodged against him or her failed. Only four of the 13 Council members agreed to substitute softer wording for a prohibition against an act that, while not a violation, would appear to be a conflict of interest. Council agreed unanimously to remove managers' discretionary authority to approve acceptance of gifts valued at less than $50.

    

REPRIEVE -- MAYBE: Both Holy Rosary and St. Helena parochial schools will remain open for an indefinite time, but the Catholic diocese evidently still intends to merge them. A vaguely-worded press statement issued on Jan. 8 said an advisory group "reaffirmed the need for consolidation," but that "until an agreement [on] the location of a consolidated school can be reached, the [respective] parishes will continue to operate their schools independently." It said the group, made up of diocesan officials, recommended that the parishes "continue to study opportunities for collaboration or consolidation in the future."

A year ago the diocese disclosed that a 'steering team' studying the future of Catholic education proposed closing Holy Rosary, leaving St. Helena, near Bellefonte, to serve eastern Brandywine Hundred. Parents and community leaders opposed that idea on the grounds that pending redevelopment in Claymont would generate enough students to make operating Holy Rosary economically viable. Meanwhile, American College has offered to buy the adjacent Holy Rosary conference center and establish a special arrangement with the elementary school. College president Donald Ross told Delaforum that diocesan officials have not yet responded to the offer.

The press statement referred to "the bright future of Catholic education in the city of Wilmington" and said a "consolidated Catholic school in the north end of town continues to be a dream that may come into being at some time in the future." It did not indicate how that might relate to Holy Rosary and St. Helena schools.

    

'COURAGEOUS' GOALS: Brandywine school superintendent James Scanlon has set a goal of increasing the number of district students meeting or exceeding state academic standards by 5% and for a 10% gain by black and 'special-needs' students, vice president Nancy Doorey told a meeting of the school board on Jan. 8. Pointing out that such improvements would be measured by statewide assessment testing this spring, less than six months after he took the job, she said it indicated both professional courage and confidence that "we (the district) can go where we need to go" under his leadership.

The board approved goals that were negotiated as part of Scanlon's contract, but did not disclose what the others are. Doorey said state law prohibits public disclosure of such job-related personnel information after the board voted unanimously to approve "the goals discussed in executive session." As part of a presentation at the meeting on the district's soon-to-be-adopted long-range plan, it was revealed that preliminary estimates put its projected cost over the next five years at more than $4.8 million. The main component of that would be $1 million to expand the use of computer technology for both teaching and measuring student achievement. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

HEAD START: Representative Wayne Smith couldn't wait for the General Assembly  to convene to begin an assault on the controversial yard-waste ban. He prefiled a measure that would prohibit the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control from banning such material from landfills unless specifically authorized to do so by the legislature. As Delaforum previously reported, it also would allow Delaware Solid Waste Authority to increase the size of the Cherry Island Marsh landfill to 202 feet, seven feet higher than authorized by a permit issued last year.

A press statement issued by his office on Jan. 4 quoted Smith as saying that composting is not a viable option for suburbanites. "For somebody who's got a quarter acre [property] with many mature trees and whose yard is literally feet deep in leaves each fall, there is not sufficient space to compost that kind of mass," it said.  Smith, who represents a Brandywine Hundred district, is one of several northern Delaware legislators seeking to have the Assembly craft any statewide recycling program. His proposed legislation -- designated as House Bill 1 -- would give it "sole authority to make such a policy change," according to the press statement. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delafourm article.)

Last updated on January 24,  2007

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