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December 2007

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A former president of the Brandywine school board will chair a community committee which seeks to block closure of Darley Road Elementary or any other school in Claymont.

Ralph Ackerman, who was elected to the board in 1993 after acting as spokesman for a group which tried unsuccessfully to prevent closure of the former Claymont High, told Delaforum he would like to see creation of a separate Claymont school district.  He served on the board for 10 years. "Claymont will never get a fair shake from [the Brandywine district]. ... A Claymont district will further revitalize this community and provide the kind of educational opportunities that kids here need," he said. Darley Road is slated for closure in both of the plans favored by the Brandywine space-consolidation committee.

Ackerman said he was "appalled" that the Brandywine district would consider closing a school which had been 'modernized', even before the bonds that paid for its renovation are paid off, and building two new ones.. Because Darley Road was renovated before 1999, the district designated it as eligible for closure. The Claymont Community Coalition decided to form the committee and Ackerman volunteered to serve as its chairman after he raised his objections at a recent meeting. In a press statement issued after the meeting, the coalition said two elected public officials who attended that meeting were supportive. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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IT'S COMING -- SOMEDAY: Claymont movers and shakers are confident their community will get a new commuter railroad station, but it's anyone's guess when. Terry Wright, an aide to U.S. Senator Joe Biden, told the Design Review Advisory Committee that Biden will put in a bid for federal financial backing in March, but it would be "one, two or three years" before the money is forthcoming. After it does, it will take three years or longer to design and construct the depot, according to Dave Gula, a planner with the Wilmington Area Planning Council.

Gula and Doug Robbins, also a council planner, presented three similar conceptual designs for the station, but committee members and other attenders at a meeting on Dec. 20 were divided on which they prefer. All three called for putting up an actual building at the end of Myrtle Avenue north of the present platform and tunnel and enlarging the parking lot. Estimated cost ranged from $16 million to $19.7 million, depending upon whether a parking garage is included. All three included a raised 520-foot platform to accommodate a six-car train while avoiding having to climb steps to board it.

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TITLE SEARCH: Brandywine School District does not hold unrestricted deeds to five of the six properties where buildings designated or being considered for closure stand, according to district lawyer Ellen Cooper. The exception is the 14 acres partly occupied by the district administrative offices. It was acquired through condemnation in 1968 by the former Claymont district for $140,000 as the site for Pennsylvania Avenue Elementary. The Hanby Middle site also is not restricted, but belongs to the state Board of Education which acquired it in 1962 for a token $10.

The Darley Road Elementary site was purchased in 1957 by the Claymont district from Colorado Fuel & Iron, a former owner the Claymont Steel plant, which has the right to buy it back for $1,400 an acre. The Carrcroft Elementary site was bought in 1955 by the former Mount Pleasant district for $2,000 with the stipulation that is can be sold only for residential purposes. The Bush school property, acquired by the state board, has to revert to the state parks system. The Burnett building is on the P.S. du Pont campus, acquired by the Wilmington district in 1933, and Cooper said it is uncertain if its site can be sold separately. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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PLANS HOLD UP: Both school-closure plans the group is considering pass geographic and diversity muster and, "with some tweaking," are do-able, finance officer David Blowman told the Brandywine space-consolidation committee. Although neither offers a clear possibility for all students to stay together through their entire scholastic careers, minor modifications of attendance zones will permit most to do so, he said. "Because of the changed grades configuration, there will be some disruption," superintendent Jim Scanlon told a committee meeting on Dec. 18.  (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article, revised to correct an error.)

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CONTRACT APPROVED: The Brandywine school board has ratified a labor agreement which gives district custodians 3.5% pay raises in each of three years. The raise for fiscal year 2007 is retroactive to July 1, 2006, and the one for the current fiscal year is retroactive to last July 1. The agreement was reached after what the district called a "year-long stalemate in negotiation." Teachers, who are represented by the Brandywine Education Association, are working without a contract. Superintendent Jim Scanlon declined to discuss that situation except to say that further negotiating meetings are scheduled.

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All things old are made new again. That rather well describes what is happening in the P.S. du Pont school building, considered by most Delawareans to be the most majestic in the state.

While the exterior of the building, built as Public Works Administration project in the depth of the Great Depression, is protected as an historic resource, John Read, who manages the Brandywine district's renovations program, said every effort is being made to preserve its significant interior features. "We're saving and recycling as much as possible while still making it functionally up-to-date," he said. As it happens, much of the original is still usable. Auditorium seats, for instance, are original and will be refurbished. Much of the flooring is still in good condition and has been retained. Most of the ornate millwork is being used.

The $47 million project -- said to be the largest school renovation ever undertaken in the state -- is on schedule and budget with completion scheduled in time for reopening in late August, Read said. The kindergarten unit on the lower level and the swimming pool in a separate building are finished. Scope of the work can be seen in such things as having replaced more than 460 doors with code-compliant ones, removing two unused corridors and installing a new elevator. A music suite, enlarged cafeteria and new heating and cooling system are being provided. (CLICK HERE to access a Delaforum photo album.)

An archives room will be set up to preserve the school's past. Alumni will be solicited to donate

The P.S. du Pont school building copula has been a distinctive landmark in north Wilmington since the early 1930s.

or lend memorabilia for display there.

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Properties would be reassessed for tax purposes every few years  if one of the key recommendations from the county's financial future taskforce is brought to fruition.

'Rolling reassessment' would tie revenue raised by county and school taxes to increases in property values and eliminate the need for frequent rate increases, according to the long-awaited final report of the blue-ribbon panel. It calls for county government to diversify its near-total dependence on real estate ownership and transfers for revenue, but does not address the politics of how to secure necessary approval from a so-far reluctant state legislature. Also recommended is tying increases in pay and employee benefits -- by far the largest government expense -- to national indices without being specific about how to do it.

Noting that basic policy changes are required if a financial crisis in the near future is to be averted, the report recommends that New Castle County follow state government's lead by establishing a permanent financial advisory panel, limit spending to 98% of anticipated revenue and cap how much income from the volatile property-transfer tax may be used to finance operating expenses. Reducing the so-called 'rainy-day find' from the current 20% of budgeted spending to the equivalent of two months' worth of anticipated spending is also recommended. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

The report was 'released' on Dec. 11, just shy of a year after the taskforce made an interim report public and five months after its last meeting.

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ON COURSE: Five months into the fiscal year, county government spending is running $3.7 million under its $165.9 million budget, but revenue is lagging $1.6 million behind what was anticipated. Chief financial officer Michael Strine told County Council's finance committee that sales of Du Pont Co.'s Barley Mill Plaza office complex and nine apartment complexes boosted income from the real estate transfer tax, but return form sales valued at less than $1 million is about 15% lower than last year. Both the number of transactions and the average selling price are off significantly, he said.

During the same meeting on Dec. 11, the committee received a glowing report from the independent outside auditor who examined the fiscal 2007 books. Keith Novak, a partner with Clifton Gunderson l.l.p., said he "did not find any issues" and was able to issue "an unqualified opinion," the highest standard possible. Robert Wasserbach, the internal county auditor, said he has set up a computer 'hot line' through which county employees and others can bring to his attention allegations of fraud or waste. "I have no reason to believe ... there is any fraud going on in county government," he said.

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SOME BACKGROUND: A Russian coal-mining company controlled by Evraz Group, the firm which is seeking to acquire Claymont Steel, operated the mines in Siberia where a total of 150 workers died in two separate gas explosions last spring. A company spokesman blamed the larger disaster on "a concatenation of circumstances ... not neglect." Published news reports at the time said the mine had been "repeatedly cited for serious safety violations" by a Russian federal regulatory agency. Majority shareowner in Evraz is Roman Arkadyevich Abramovich, listed by Fortune magazine as the world's 16th wealthiest billionaire. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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CLAYMONT STEEL GOING FOREIGN AGAIN: Evraz Group, one of the world's leading vertically-integrated steel production businesses, with European headquarters in Luxembourg and operations mainly in Russia, announced that it will acquire Claymont Steel for the equivalent of about $564.8 million. According to a press statement issued on Dec. 10, a wholly owned U.S. subsidiary will make a tender offer of $23.50 per share for all of Claymont Steel's stock. H.I.G. Capital, which owns approximately 42.6% of Claymont Steelís issued common stock, has committed to sell, the statement said.

Evraz will use Claymont's mini-mill to expand output of steel plate used in bridges and railcars. Early this year it paid $2.3 billion for Portland-based Oregon Steel Mills, which also produces plate metal and is the biggest maker of steel-rail products in the United States.  The Evraz statement quoted Jeff Bradley, Claymont Steelís chairman, as expressing excitement "at the opportunity to become part of a company with a significant international presence." Claymont Steel traces its lineage to 1918 and Worth Steel. For many years prior to its present owners taking over in 2005 it was owned by a Chinese company.

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The county administration plans a crackdown on sump pumps illegally connected to the sanitary sewer system soon after the turn of the year.

Tracy Surles, general manager of the Department of Special Services, said the effort will begin in Brandywine Hundred but that it has not yet been decided how the cost of disconnecting the hookups will be apportioned. Some local governments across the country pay the full cost, others require that homeowners to assume the responsibility and many share it, she told a County Council committee meeting on Dec. 4. Councilman George Smiley said he would oppose using tax dollars to "fix something that's illegal when others do what they're supposed to do."

Surles said the situation is more complex than that. Many of the pumps were installed and connected long ago by builders and subsequent purchasers of the properties were not even aware of the linkage. Almost every house in Fairfax, for instance, is linked, she said. "It's a pervasive problem and there is a lack of public understanding of why it's a problem," Councilman John Cartier said. The pumps overload sanitary sewers during heavy rains. Unless property owners are somehow encouraged to report the linkages, they will have to be found. Technology exists to do that and inspections prior to sales of houses are a possibility, Surles said.

She acknowledged that there also is a potential problem of controlling additional runoff from a large number of pumps discharging into yards and streets.

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INTRUDING INSECT: A bug said to fall somewhere between a pinhead and a tackhead in size could block a proposed 209-unit age-restricted townhouse community near the banks of the Christina River in Pencader Hundred. It's not just any old bug, however, but a Seth Forest water scavenger beetle -- better known to entomologists as a hydrochus spangleri -- said until recently to dwell only in Seth Forest in Talbot County, Md., and maybe now habitating also on the 165-acre property that Reybold Associates wants to rezone to permit the development. John Tracey, Reybold's lawyer, questioned whether that is so.

Danell Butler, who watches over endangered species for the state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control, told the county Planning Board at a public hearing in Dec. 4 that an expert hired by the department found one of the rare beetles there early last summer. Tracey said he was notified of that only six days before the hearing and had been unable to verify the identity of the insect "whom I believe is now deceased." He strongly intimated that Butler arranged the find as a means to block his client's project. The development code prohibits any development that would have an adverse impact on endangered species. (CLICK HERE to access information about the Seth Forest water scavenger beetle.)

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NEVER SAY DIE: Several residents of the Paladin Club condominium complex took their effort to block construction of 38 townhouses in the community to County Council although the most they can accomplish is to force further delay. Council's only options are to approve the development plan or return it to the Department of Land Use for consideration of one or more technical issues. Councilman John Cartier, sponsor of the measure, told Delaforum that he is uncertain what course he will propose when the approval resolution comes before Council on Dec. 11 for what usually in such matters is a routine vote.

Lawyer Richard Forsten told Council's land use committee on Dec. 4 that the area where the townhouses are planned is the last remaining tract of what used to be Clifton Park Manor owned by Edgewood Village l.l.c. The condominium owners have no legal claim to that tract, he said. Two residents presented documents listing a clubhouse, swimming pools and tennis courts there as amenities associated with purchase of condominium units. Forsten dismissed those as marketing tools. Edgewood, a Pettinaro Construction affiliate, also has pending a proposal to build 180 residential units on property adjacent to Paladin. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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CLAYMONT CELEBRATES: Inaugurated five years ago as a whimsical commemoration of a decorated weed found growing in a crack along Philadelphia Pike, the Christmas parade organized by the Claymont Community Coalition has grown into a major event ushering in the holiday season. Unlike commercially oriented parades elsewhere, however, this one has retained its hometown flavor although the weed has evolved

Councilman John Cartier places an ornament on the Claymont 'Christmas weed'.

Demolition of the former Brookview apartments complex is underway.

into a sort of Charlie Brown Christmas tree and the paraders on Dec. 1, who took nearly an hour to pass by, included organizations from as far away as Newport and Pike Creek.

During a brief weed-decorating session, coalition president George Lossť referred to the parade as symbolic of the "growth of the renewal spirit" now underway. County Councilman Robert Weiner said the recently started demolition of the former Brookview Apartments complex to make room for a 'new-urbanist' Renaissance Village demonstrates what happens when a community comes together to foster revitalization. "There is no other place in Delaware where they have so many unpaid volunteers" devoting time and effort to improving their community, Councilman John Cartier said. (CLICK HERE to access a Delaforum photo album.)

Last updated on December 23, 2007

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