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May 2008

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America has a "solemn obligation" to provide for members of the armed forces who return from Afghanistan and Iraq with injuries that will last their lifetime, U.S. Senator Joseph Biden said.

Although he was not specific about what he would like to see included in the so-called new edition of the G.I. Bill now pending in Congress, he told about 200 people who "don't confuse Memorial Day with a holiday [weekend]" at a memorial service in Wilmington on May 30 that there is a danger "we are going to begin to try to forget [that] obligation." He said both wars are likely to continue for some time with Americans being killed and wounded literally every day. That doesn't seem to register with the public, he said. "The wars that no one knows are going on ... are being fought by very few for very many."

Wilmington is one of a relative handful of cities and towns that still observe the traditional day of remembrance declared soon after the end of the Civil War. This year's parade and memorial service were the 141st annual. Only a spattering of observers turned out along the route of march and vehicles with drivers oblivious to what was going on continued to pass the Soldiers & Sailors Monument during the memorial service. Francis Vavala, the state's adjutant general and commander of its National Guard, recalled when the parade originated downtown and the service attracted a large crowd.

Joseph Biden speaks at the annual Memorial Day service.

Delaware Military Academy cadets lay wreaths donated by several patriotic organizations at the base of the Soldiers & Sailors Monument.

    

MEMORIAL DAY:

 

They rest in honored glory

 

    

AN HISTORIC VENUE: Claymont Renaissance Development Corp. and the Claymont Historic Society have proposed locating their offices in the vacant state-owned Darley house. Brett Saddler, executive director of the economic development organization, said the two groups would agree to provide ordinary maintenance for the property in return for a $1-a-year lease. During the 19th century, the house on Philadelphia Pike was the home of Felix Darley, who is considered one of America's foremost illustrators. He played host to numerous literary figures, including celebrated English novelist Charles Dickens.

    

CORRECTION: County Councilman John Cartier wants to find a more descriptive name for the Department of Special Services. Delaforum incorrectly attributed the idea to George Smiley. (CLICK HERE to read the corrected article.)

    

Remaining true to form, County Council voted unanimously to give County Executive Christopher Coons exactly what he asked for in the way of spending authority for the coming fiscal year.

After six weeks of hearings amid considerable discussion about looming financial problems, the only change in the budget ordinance approved on May 27 from what Coons requested two months earlier was an administration-prepared amendment allocating an additional $508,905 from reserves to cover the cost of a recently completed labor agreement. The combined general operating and sanitary sewer budgets will total $240.3 million. That is an 8.3% increase over the $221.7 million projected spending in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, according to the most recent financial reports on the county website.

The only substantive discussion during a Council finance committee meeting prior to the plenary session centered around complaints by Jea Street and Penrose Hollins, whose districts include Wilmington, that city residents who, Hollins pointed out, are also "citizens of the county" are being short-changed when their county-provided services are compared to the other incorporated municipalities. Street also complained that the administration failed to provide information he requested about overtime in the Department of Public Safety and the county's vehicle fleet. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

The property tax rate in unincorporated areas was set at 56.14 for each $100 of assessed value, unchanged from this year. There also were no changes in sanitary sewer fees, but the administration has said it intends to soon make a proposal that will require one.

    

WHAT'S IN A NAME?: Councilman John Cartier has taken a cue from Willie (Old Bard) Shakespeare and asked that classic question about county government's most diversified operating department. The Department of Special Services handles sewers, parks, capital projects, building maintenance, storm water runoff and some miscellaneous things like scheduling softball games. Smiley wants to come up with a name which better reflects all those good things. Suggestion: Department of Repairing, Operating and Servicing Everything. If nothing else, that would make for a dandy acronym.

    

Violators of the property code are likely to find themselves on candid camera after county government begins, probably during the coming summer, to enforce it photographically.

Nicole Majeski, County Executive Christopher Coons's chief of staff, told County Council's land use committee that an ordinance is being prepared for introduction in June to define code violations as civil offenses and set up an administrative enforcement arrangement patterned on one used by the Wilmington Department of Licenses & Inspections. The idea is to circumvent the always long and often futile process of prosecuting violators in justice-of-the-peace court. Council members at the committee meeting on May 20 generally supported the proposal. "We want to have this up and running by July 1," Majeski said.

Commissioner Jeffrey Starkey of the city department told the county committee that photographic enforcement has been effective. He explained that code inspectors photograph violations and offenders are sent a citation which includes a digital image. They have the right of appeal, but, confronted with irrefutable evidence, most pay the $50 fine, he said. Although he said the city's intent is not to make money but to eliminate blight, Council president Paul Clark noted that reducing costs would make code enforcement 'profitable' and that would help pay for additional enforcement officers.

Also in the offing, Majeski said, is an ordinance intended to deal with vacant properties which frequently become neighborhood blights.

    

BE THERE: Members still may participate by telephone, as they occasionally have in the past, in County Council discussions, but cannot be included in quorum counts or vote during the meetings under a rule unanimously approved on May 20 by Council's executive committee. An exception would be a meeting to deal with an emergency formally declared by the county executive. The action follows a ruling by the state attorney general that electronic participation complies with the open-meeting law. Council actually approved the rule a week earlier, but re-voted, without discussion, because the matter was not correctly noticed then.

    

The long-running civic controversy over development of Brandywine Town Center apparently will end quietly with liberalization of deed restrictions on the property.

County Councilman Robert Weiner said he will introduce a resolution to approve changes that will  allow Acadia Realty to lease about 6,000 square feet of unoccupied space under the middle dome and to erect a two-story commercial building behind the main building. In return, Acadia will give up two of three building pads around the pond in front of the main building. A playground will be located on one and both will be

Space under the largest dome in Brandywine Town Center (right in the above photo and below) will become leaseable after County Council, as is now expected, approves changes in the deed restrictions on the property. The other dome in the above photo is atop a restaurant being constructed on one of three building pads. The other two, which also border the water feature, are to remain open space. The park-and-ride commuter station will be relocated to the little-used parking lot near the community building (not shown in the photo) which also borders the water feature.

dedicated as permanent open space. An unique feature of the deed restriction -- a scale model defining what the center was to look like -- will be eliminated. Weiner said no one knows where the model is anyway.

Beginning in 1985, before his  election to Council, Weiner led an unsuccessful effort as a civic activist to block rezoning of what had been the site of Brandywine Raceway, a race track, for the center. "The existence of the Brandywine Town Center is now a reality. This modern-day 'Battle of the Brandywine' is over," he said. He said that after more than a year of consultation with civic associations in the area "non-opposition [to modifying the restrictions] has now been formally conveyed to me." He said the changes will benefit the area by eliminating the detrimental effect of empty space that could not be made available for tenants.

Following the death of millionaire businessman John Rollins several years ago, Acadia acquired the center from Rollins Properties, which no longer exists.

    

State government's budget woes aren't over, but at least they apparently haven't gotten any worse during the past month.

After a series of dramatic reductions so far in this calendar year in estimated revenue for the fiscal year which begins July 1, the Delaware Economic & Financial Advisory Council is prepared to shave a relatively modest $500,000 from its April projection when it meets on May 19. The General Assembly is required to use the council's forecast as the basis for the fiscal 2009 state budget. The council is scheduled to meet one more time before the Assembly acts in late June. Economist Fred Dixon told the council's revenue committee on May 16 that he feels "a little more optimistic, but hardly euphoric" about the national economy at this point.

The council will make a $78.5 million upward revision of its revenue estimate for the current fiscal year, but David Gregor, the Department of Finance's liaison, said $28.8 million of that was the result of "financial management measures" to cope with the situation by deauthorizing some projects and transferring money from reserve accounts.. Higher-than-expected payments with personal income tax filings in April contributed $19.5 million; the U.S. Supreme Court's decision not to hear an appeal by Lehman Brothers added $10.5 million in bank franchise tax; and corporate income tax receipts were upped by $8 million. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Robert Scoglietti, of the Office of Management and Budget, said that, barring unforeseen developments, it appears the state's general fund will squeak by $1.6 million in the black this fiscal year -- a tiny fraction of the $3.3 billion budget -- without dipping into the $185.4 million 'rainy day' emergency fund.

    

POLICE INITIATIVE SUCCESSFUL: During the four months they have been patrolling together in the Claymont area, a state trooper and a county police officer have made 145 arrests -- 109 of them on drug-related charges and 89 for alleged felonies. Patrick Ogden, commander of the Penny Hill State Police troop, told the Claymont Community Coalition that the unprecedented cooperative venture linking the forces with separate jurisdictions appears to have had a significant impact on the trade in illegal drugs in the area. He indicated that it will be continued.

Statistics shared with the coalition at its meeting on May 15 included: 68 persons arrested, of whom 25 were fugitives wanted in connection with various crimes; $13,310 of drug-transaction money seized; $995 worth of stolen property recovered; and two firearms confiscated. He said 352 grams of cocaine, 50 grams of crack cocaine, 13 bags of heroin and about two pounds of marijuana were seized. In addition, the officers made 210 arrests for traffic violations. Apart from the patrol's results, Ogden said a suspect in a murder last winter at the methadone clinic in Claymont, already in prison for other offenses, has been indicted. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

WHAT ELECTION?: A miniscule turnout of district residents elected Cheryl Siskin to the Brandywine school board. She will take the seat currently occupied by her opponent, Aletha Ramseur, who was appointed by the board last year to complete the term of Nancy Doorey, which runs through June, 2009. Siskin will serve, beginning in July, for the remaining year. Her victory margin was 56.4% to 43.6%, but only 929 votes were cast on May 13. The 2007 board election attracted slightly larger participation, 1,123 votes, but both fell well below the 13,889 votes cast at the June, 2007, tax referendum. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

PRINCIPAL APPOINTED: The Catholic diocese reached into the Philadelphia archdiocese to select a principal for the merged St. Helena-Holy Rosary elementary school. According to a notice in the local diocese's newspaper, Monica Malseed, assistant principal of St. Maximilian Kolbe parish school in Westtown, Pa., got the job. Neither Holy Rosary principal William Beliveau nor his St. Helena counterpart, Patricia Quinter, responded to a Delaforum request for comment. The diocese refers to the merged school as new. Opening in September at the St. Helena site near Bellefonte, it will be known as Pope John Paul II School. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

CURATOR PROPOSAL REJECTED: The proposal by B.T.L. Foundation to be resident curator of historic Ivyside House in Bechtel Park has been rejected. C.R. McLeod, communications director for County Executive Christopher Coons, did not give a reason why its bid was turned down. He did say that and other properties in the program will be re-offered "with a modification of some requirements and the clarifying of the necessary standards as well." B.T.L. Foundation submitted the only proposal for Ivyside. None were received for houses in Jester and Talley-Day Parks, the other Brandywine Hundred properties offered.  (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

BIRD'S EYE VIEW:

County Councilman Robert Weiner 'released' this aerial photograph of the cleared site in Claymont formerly occupied by Brookview Apartments. The view, looking south, he said, illustrates the strategic location of the future Renaissance Village between Interstate 495 (lower left), the Amtrak right-of-way (along the Delaware River) and Interstate 95 (right). Site preparation is underway with initial construction said to begin during the coming summer. Woodshaven-Kruse Park is at the lower right of the photograph.

    

APPEAL DENIED: Superior Court has rejected county government's appeal of a decision by the Board of Assessment Review which lowered Verizon's property-tax assessment by $80 million. In an opinion issued on Apr. 30 but not publicly announced, Judge John Babiarz agreed with the communications utility that an annual depreciation adjustment is a fairer way to evaluate outside equipment, such as poles and wires, than a one-time write-off. County spokesperson C.R. McLeod said it has not been decided whether to appeal the court ruling, which will 'cost' the county $700,000 in lost revenue and also reduce school districts' tax revenue.

    

PLAN WITHDRAWN: County Councilman Robert Weiner said he was informed that the Stoltz reality organization has withdrawn the second version of a development plan to construct a shopping center at Concord Pike and Beaver Valley Road. "We can expect the plan to be resubmitted with revisions," Weiner said. After an earlier version ran into strong community opposition, Stoltz proposed to develop 237,000 square feet of commercial space, 27,000 square feet of office and 36 living units on the 44-acre site. A Planning Board public hearing on that proposal, scheduled for May 6, has been cancelled. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Although beset with its own fiscal woes, New Castle County government may be required to help bail state government out from its budget problem.

County Executive Christopher Coons told a group of civic leaders that he has heard from unspecified legislators that a cutback in the county's share of proceeds from the state tax on property transfers is one of the ideas being bandied about in Dover as the Minner administration considers ways to cope with predicted shortfalls in revenue this and next fiscal years. The rate would be cut from 1% to 1%. That, Coons said, would 'cost' the county $5 million a year in revenue not received. It also would come at a time when the tax, which finances about a third of the county budget, is down as a result of the slump in the real estate market.

Ironically, county government has been trying to get the Assembly to authorize tapping new revenue streams to diversify its sources of income before reserves, generated in part by an increase in the transfer tax, are exhausted. Going the other direction, Coons said at a meeting on May 1, would require a significant increase in property tax, a cutback in county services or both. Charles Landry, president of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred, said public safety must be exempt from any cuts. "I would rather see our libraries shut down completely [and] our parks and other facilities get ratty," he said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

County Council is required to enact a fiscal 2009 budget, including the property-tax rate, before the end of May, but the Assembly will not take final action on the state budget until late in June.

    

JOB OFFERED: Charles Baker, general manager of the county Department of Land Use, is considering a job offer in Vermont. In a letter to colleagues, he said he has not submitted his resignation and that "a few issues," including selling his home, need to be resolved before he makes a decision. He noted that he grew up in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and said a move to nearby Vermont would accomplish "a long-time goal of obtaining a challenging planning job in that part of the country." Dave Culver, planning manager in the department, has resigned to take a position as planning director in Havre de Gras, Md.

    

SUIT FILED: Milltown-Limestone Civic Alliance and five residents of the area have filed suit to overturn County Council's approval of a development plan to build 160 houses on the former Hercules Country Club golf course. In a complaint filed in Superior Court on Apr. 30, they allege that Delaware Department of Transportation and the county Department of Land Use did not adequately provide for safety on adjacent Hercules Road. They also said that Council members were incorrectly advised that they had no option other than to vote to approve the plan after the department certified that it conformed to the development code. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on May 31, 2008

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