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March, 2007

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REFERENDUM ALLOCATION: Brandywine School officials disclosed details of the two tax-increase questions which will be put to voters at the Apr. 24 referendum. The questions are not intended to be a choice, but are to be separately answered 'yes' or 'no'. The allocation and implementation schedule released on Mar. 26 retains the proposed 38.2-per-$100 of assessed property value approved by the school board with the proviso that 36.2 will be imposed during the coming fiscal year and the full increase in each of the next four years. Here is the schedule to be followed if votes on both questions are favorable: (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

 

Maintenance
& Safety

Other Operating
Costs

Total Increase
over present rate

2007

6.0

30.2

36.2

2008

7.7

30.5

38.2

2009

7.7

30.5

38.2

2010

8.0

30.2

38.2

2011

7.0

31.2

38.2

Taxes are due by Sept. 30 of the respective years.
Rates are for each $100 of assessed property value.

    

ANOTHER VIEW: Councilman William Tansey, vice chairman of County Council's finance committee, told Delaforum he 'would have supported a more modest tax increase," but intends to vote against the proposed 17.5% increase in the property-tax rate. He said its size indicates that County Executive Christopher Coons does not "feel confident that he will be successful in reducing the [county employees'] compensation package, which is where the budget has to be reduced." Tansey praised Coons for "a sincere effort in trimming the budget" and said he will work with him to help close the gap between rising revenue and spending rates. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Environmental secretary John Hughes said the delay in enforcing the ban on dumping yard waste until next Jan. 15 provides time to work with trash collectors to find acceptable ways to dispose of it.

Testifying in support of legislation legitimatizing the delay before a General Assembly committee which cleared it with a favorable report, he said he has some ideas about workable inducements but does not want to make them public now. He acknowledged that he made "an error in judgment in setting the [original] effective date" even though his department had planned "low-key enforcement." Representative Diana McWilliams, who sponsored the resolution which calls for "developing a program that will simplify and economize yard waste recycling," said the delay also "will give us time to have an omnibus recycling program in place."

Just before the committee met on Mar. 21, the Recycling Public Advisory Council endorsed draft legislation prepared by the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control to provide financial grants to public and private entities to develop and implement programs to collect and put to new uses a broad range of recyclable material. Hughes in his testimony referred to that soon-to-be-introduced measure as supporting only a voluntary approach to recycling. "It is a springboard bill that I believe will satisfy all concerns," he said. Also reportedly in the offing is a measure authorizing establishment of trash-hauling districts. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Hughes said passage of McWilliams's resolution will effectively kill a bill sponsored by former representative Wayne Smith that would have done away completely with the yard-waste ban.

    

George Smiley, chairman of County Council's finance committee, said Christopher Coons's budget proposal will be carefully scrutinized but indicated that no substantive changes are likely.

"No one can be pleased with a tax increase," he told Delaforum after Council listened to the county executive's budget address, but added that "if you disagree with the [proposed] budget" it is necessary to offset changes in revenue generation with spending cuts and vice versa. In past years, Council has made only a few minimal changes in what was requested. Smiley said he is pleased that the administration is suspending 'feel-good' activities. A retired teamsters union negotiator, he said he supports hard bargaining with their unions over county workers' wages and benefits. "It's no good getting a $25 raise if a month later your job isn't there," he said.

The only major point in Coons's presentation that had not been previously anticipated was his pegging the proposed property-tax increase at 17.5%. That would take the rate in unincorporated areas to 56.14 for each $100 of assessed property value. "We cannot afford to ask our residents for less unless we are prepared to eliminate critical functions of government," Coons said. "We have made all the [spending] cuts I think we can stand." With increases in fees for service and hoped-for state approval of new revenue sources, the proposed budget -- which has "something in it for everyone to dislike" -- "will get county finances back on track," he said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Recent scare headlines have not caused the state's official economy watchers to hit the panic button although they are going to stir a little extra caution into their optimism.

The prognosis is basically unchanged since the turn of the year although "the level of risk has risen," finance department research director David Gregor told the Delaware Economic & Financial Advisory Council's revenue committee. "I'm not hearing anybody calling for a recession," although forecasters are looking for slow economic growth through the rest of this year and into 2008. Consequently, the council on Mar. 19 will likely reduce its estimate of state revenue in the fiscal year which begins July 1 by $25.3 million from what it projected in December. That would reflect a growth rate of 2.1%, down from 3.3% in the current fiscal year.

Gregor said, however, that planned closure of the Chrysler automobile assembly plant and a reported larger-than-expected number of jobs lost as a result of the acquisition of M.B.N.A. Bank by Bank of America are not as ominous as they might seem. While he said that he didn't want to minimize the personal impact on workers who are affected, other employers "are coming up with numbers on the positive side." In the short-term, the council will add $11.8 million to its December projection for current-year revenue, mostly as a result of large increases in revenue from escheat property and the bank-franchise and insurance-premium taxes.

    

County Executive Christopher Coons will ask County Council to authorize general fund spending of $164 million in the coming fiscal year, down from $167.4 million this year.

A summary released on Mar. 16 by his office in advance of Coons's budget presentation on Mar. 20 said spending cuts amounting to $14 million will be partly offset by $10 million that will be needed for debt-service payments, health care cost increases and pay increases mandated by current labor contracts. The summary refers to the proposal he will make as a "no growth" plan, but gives no indication of how large an increase in the property tax rate he will request. It does say that he will propose increases in fees for county services that would yield an estimated $4 million.

The summary said eliminating some vacant positions and not financing others will save more than $2.8 million and that savings totaling $416,000 will come from not holding the ice cream festival, 'golden age' dance, Easter egg hunt and Fathers' Day event during the coming fiscal year. The budget for sanitary sewer service that Coons will submit will call for spending $64 million, up from $60.2 million this year. That budget is financed entirely by user fees, but the county's most recent financial report indicates that reserves, net of the 'rainy day' emergency reserve, are sufficient to cover expected spending into fiscal year 2011 without having to increase fees. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

With anticipated revenue less than expected spending, the general fund budget will be partly financed from reserves, which are projected to total $67.2 million on June 30. Council is required by law to approve a budget by the end of May.

    

Not to worry, County Councilmen John Cartier and Robert Weiner told Claymont civic activists, Renaissance Village will be built and it will conform in all respects to what has been promised.

Seeking to snuff out what Weiner called "a recent misunderstanding," they told a meeting of the Design Review Advisory Committee on Mar. 15 that the pending sale by the Commonwealth-Setting joint venture of all or part of the former Brookview apartments complex is related to the downturn in the housing market and should not be taken as a sign that anyone is backing away from the ambitious redevelopment project. Weiner said 10 nationally-recognized builders and "master developers" have responded to Ideal Reality's listing of the property and that more than 400 potential buyers have indicated interest in buying the dwellings to be built.

Although demolition of existing structures will start soon after County Council formally approves the final plan -- probably in April -- Cartier said he and County Executive Christopher Coons are working to assure that, meanwhile, "66 acres of abandoned buildings ... [do] not become a public nuisance or public safety problem." The ultimate builder or builders will not only be bound by the approved plan but also will have to abide by the development agreement to include 10% 'affordable housing' in the mix, he said. When finished, the 'new urbanist' community "will be fully consistent with the community-supported design plan," Weiner said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

ADVANCE PEEK: County Executive Christopher Coons will ask for a "balanced package" of a property-tax increase, workforce reductions and a bid for state approval to levy new taxes on hotel lodging and cellular telephone use when he presents his proposed fiscal 2008 budget to Council on Mar. 20, according to Councilman Robert Weiner. He said no police officer nor paramedic positions will be included in the 61 jobs to be eliminated or left unfinanced. Having voted against last year's 5% property-tax rate increase, he said he is "inclined to favor an appropriate tax increase" this time around.

Councilman John Cartier told a meeting of the Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee on Mar. 15 that the tax increase will cost property owners "somewhere in the range of $5 to $10 a month." He predicted that Council will "have the political will" to approve the increase. "We're going to ask for sacrifice from [county] employees and from the public," he said. Once county government finances are in order, "we will be able to get back the 'fun things', [undertake] new initiatives and address things in a pro-active way." On the other hand, if they are not corrected, "we're going to have [major] problems down the road," he added. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Most members of the Planning Board believe the proposed accessory dwelling unit ordinance poses a risk of serious adverse impact on residential communities to achieve, at best, limited advantages.

As previously reported, the board has recommended that County Council reject the ordinance. A summary of discussion at it Feb. 27 business meeting 'released' by the Department of Land Use and posted on its website reveals the vote against going along with the department's recommendation that it be approved was seven-to-one. Only board member June MacArtor agreed that it was a good way help alleviate the shortage of 'affordable' housing. Land use general manager Charles Baker reportedly told the board that the proposed ordinance "is but one small portion of a much larger housing program" with other measures to come "in the near future."

According to the summary, William McGlinchey described the proposal as "a clear intrusion into the anticipated and expected long-term character of the single-family neighborhood." Board chairman Victor Singer referred to the idea as "an experiment that has no real known results that can be relied upon for New Castle County." He proposed limiting the number that would be permitted annually. Joseph Maloney said that complaint-driven enforcement would not likely be effective and that regular inspections would be needed to assure compliance with the ordinance's restrictive provisions. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

It now appears that Council will not take up the controversial measure before its Mar. 27 session.

    

BIRTHDAY SESSION:

Wilmington City Council held a special session in Old Town Hall on Mar. 7 and then recessed for a program to commemorate acceptance by what was then a borough council of a state charter elevating it to a city. That was done in the same room on the same date in 1832. A reception next door in the Historical Society of Delaware museum completed the evening observance.

    

County Council president Paul Clark charged that the Coons administration might be using the comprehensive plan to slip in a few new land-use policies "that I didn't know about."

"If a policy decision has been made that hasn't been shared with this Council, that's wrong," he said as the land-use committee reviewed 83 revisions to the proposed plan to guide development for the next five years. Specifically, he and Council members William Bell and William Powers took issue at a committee meeting on Mar. 5 with revision number 15. It said that pending plans for projects in the part of southern area of the county designated for development later rather than sooner "will be dealt with based on their individual circumstances." They interpreted that to mean that projects well along in the approval process could be sidelined indefinitely.

Land use general manager Charles Baker said there was nothing sinister about the proposed changes which he said were derived from comments received from the public and state agencies since the draft of the plan was 'released' in November. Council members weren't buying that and agreed unanimously to a formal resolution calling on the law department to explain what's happening. To allow time for that as well as a detailed final look at the plan itself, they also agreed to ask state authorities to push the deadline for approving the plan back for as long as six months beyond the Apr. 1 deadline. Kent County previously asked for and was granted a like delay.

Clark and others also questioned whether adding a reference to projects anywhere having to "respect the character and integrity of existing communities" was a way of restoring a controversial preliminary step that Council previously erased from the development code.

    

WHAT'S AT STAKE: Brandywine school officials hinted broadly that instituting full-day tuition-free kindergarten and maintaining other academic programs depend on voters approving the proposed increase of 38.2 per $100 of assessed property value in the ceiling on the district's operations tax rate. The district's present financial crunch will be relieved "through other means should the referendum not be successful," chief financial officer David Blowman told about 35 persons who turned out on Mar. 6 for the first of two informational meetings. "If we have to make adjustments, we will. They will be painful," he said.

Blowman and superintendent James Scanlon said the district has been diligent about managing taxpayer money. They said student achievement as measured by state tests has improved during the five years since the last operating-tax referendum and that Brandywine has pioneered such things as the International Baccalaureate Program. Blowman said that 92% of every tax-generated dollar "goes directly to the schools." The only significant comment from the audience referred to reputed bullying at the intermediate-school level. Scanlon the district is aware of that and is taking steps to deal with it. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

CANDIDATES: With one day left until the deadline, three persons have filed for election to fill the Brandywine Board of Education seat that will become vacant on July 1. But they do not include the incumbent, Craig Gilbert. "With that type of interest I have decided against asking the community for another five years," he told Delaforum. "This great community of ours truly values public education for all students and we should always be thankful for the community's support." The candidates are: Patricia M. Hearn, of Kingsridge; Barbara Ann Muhamad, of Radnor Green; and Donald W. Soles Jr., of Greentree. The election is May 8. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

DEAL COOKING: Negotiations have been underway looking to provide some permanent open space adjacent to Brandywine Town Center in return for easing somewhat the restrictions on further developing the center. County Councilman Robert Weiner said that is why he has delayed bringing a rezoning ordinance that would permit Commonwealth Group to build a two-story medical office building on 1.26 acres of land just east of the center to a vote. He said that Commonwealth is now looking to sell three parcels, known as 'the Brown properties', to Acadia Realty Trust, owner of the center.

If the deal goes through, that land and land which includes two of three circular building pods adjacent to the pond in front of the main center building would be deeded in perpetuity as undevelopable open space. In return, the councilman said he will sponsor a measure to change existing deed restrictions on the center to permit Acadia to build a 65,000-square-foot commercial building on the transit parking area in the center. Weiner said the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, which has long battled the Naamans Road center, endorsed the proposal at a closed-door meeting of its executive committee. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

INSPECTIONS TO START: Random building inspections provided for in the county rental code are now scheduled to begin in April, about five months later than originally planned. James Edwards, of the Department of Land Use, told a County Council committee on Feb. 27 that concentrating on registering rental units caused the delay. He said 35,532 have now been registered, including every unit owned by members of the Apartment Association of Delaware. That leaves and estimated 2,500 still not registered. "We're [thinking] that people who didn't register have something to hide," said Stephen Peuquet, chairman of the rental code advisory committee. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on March 27, 2007

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