delaforum

February 2008

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HIGH-TECH WATCH: The county police force is using a new device to seek out stolen cars and vehicles involved in crimes. Police chief Rick Gregory told County Council's public safety committee that one patrol car is now equipped with a roof camera which 'reads' virtually every license plates, parked or moving, passed along the way as the officer goes about normal duties. If the number matches any in the database where wanted vehicles are listed, the device signals a 'hit' alerting the officer to initiate an appropriate investigative procedure. Up to 1,000 plates can be checked automatically during a normal shift.

The downside, he said, is that the equipment is expensive -- $24,000 a unit. The first one has been financed with a federal grant. It is now limited to using the county force's database, but it is intended to establishing compatible links with neighboring forces. Gregory also told the committee on Feb. 26 that a two-officer taskforce has been established to deal with drug-related and other crimes in the Claymont area. A county and a state officer are patrolling and responding to calls as a unit in the same car. While the two forces routinely cooperate, this is the first example of that kind of continuing interjurisdictional arrangement.

    

As county lawmakers psych themselves to come face to face with the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, they were told the sagging national economy is buffeting local coffers.

Chief financial officer Michael Strine told Council's finance committee that both the decline in the residential housing market and the succession of Federal Reserve cuts in its basic short-term interest rate are having a substantial adverse effect on revenues. Also, he said, a continuing decline in water consumption by both residential and commercial users is negatively affecting sewer-fund revenue, which is based on water use. As a result, he has increased the estimate of how deeply the county will have to dip into reserves to cover a budget shortfall this year.

Data presented to the committee on Feb. 26 showed collections from the real estate transfer tax were down 35% in January and are off 45% so far in February, from the like months a year ago. Proceeds from a few large transactions no longer are offsetting the decline in the residential market, as was the case earlier in the fiscal year, Strine said. He said the county now expects to earn $3.6 million less interest than it did last year by investing its cash flow in short-term securities. Meanwhile, debt service is up $4.8 million, employee health care $1.7 million and energy and utilities expenses $1.1 million.

Meanwhile, in a separate matter, Council approved transferring an additional $650,000 from reserves to cover lawyer fees "associated with various [unspecified] cases."

    

HOUSING MEASURES PASSED: County Council unanimously enacted the landmark 'affordable' housing ordinance and related measures without hearing any dissent from its members or a half dozen members of the public who testified at its Feb. 26 session. Councilman Penrose Hollins, sponsor of the legislation, said he accepted a series of compromises to establish a program to address a recognized shortage of moderately-priced new housing in the county. The underlying ordinance was endorsed by representatives of the state housing authority, the homebuilders association and American Association of Retired Persons. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delafourm article.)

    

HISTORY LESSON:

Jonathan Husband, a county Department of Special Services official, (second from left) said an effort will be made to name the road through Talley-Day Park in honor of Harlan Day, the last owner of the farmhouse which stood where the park's soccer fields are today. Councilman Robert Weiner displays a photograph of the house while Harlan Day's son, Jack Day, (right) and James Hanby, a local-history authority, listen approvingly. Husband also told attenders at a seminar where stories of several families prominent in Brandywine Hundred history were discussed that the house on park property last owned by the late Edith Talley could be preserved if a prospective resident curator comes forward. Weiner sponsored the two-and-a-half-hour seminar in the branch library located in the park on Feb. 23.

    

Told that a separate Claymont school district would be feasible, the Claymont Community Coalition authorized its proponent to find out if that's what area residents want.

Ralph Ackerman, a former Brandywine school board member, proposed using the Darley Road and Maple Lane Elementary schools for kindergarten through sixth grade and converting the present Claymont Intermediate into a junior-senior high school. A report he presented to a coalition meeting on Feb. 21 said that a committee he headed found that 2,129 students living in Claymont currently attend Brandywine schools. With a "less top-heavy administration structure," he said, they would generate sufficient revenue to finance operations. The tax impact, he added, is "anticipated [to] be a wash."

State representative Gregory Lavelle said the idea "runs counter to sentiment across the state" to have fewer school districts and that a Claymont district "is going to cost a lot more than your first blush," but did not specifically oppose the idea. General Assembly approval would be necessary. Brandywine superintendent Jim Scanlon did not comment. "I think Claymont is going to be adversely impacted" by the school consolidation plan the Brandywine board is expected to approve on Feb. 25, Ackerman said. It will close Darley Road Elementary. The coalition voted unanimously to hold a public hearing to further air the idea. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

OPENNESS PROMISED: Brandywine schools superintendent Jim Scanlon assured the Claymont Community Coalition that the public will be included as plans are developed for the sites of schools the district closes. "Everything we do is going to be up front, transparent and open to the public," he said during a discussion of the future of the Darley Road Elementary site. He said the district has received preliminary inquiries from some organizations interested in leasing the facility for such things as child care and before-and after-school activities.

Dick Moore, a Brandywine Little League board member, told a coalition meeting on Feb. 21  that that organization would be hard put to replace the seven baseball diamonds at Dwyer Field, which is part of the Darley Road property. The youth league, which serves between 600 and 650 youngsters each season, has used and maintained the site for more than 40 years, he said. The four-diamond complex being built at Marsh and Naamans Road, he explained, is intended to supplement, not replace, Dwyer facilities with league games also played in county parks. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Renaissance Village will likely be the first redevelopment project to employ a new-to-Delaware financing arrangement using county government's ability to borrow through tax-exempt bonds.

William Rhodunda, Commonwealth Group's lawyer, told a recent meeting of County Council's finance committee that legislation is being prepared for it to provide the developer with tax-increment financing. Roughly comparable to a home-equity loan, that uses increases in a property's tax assessment as the project is built to partly finance construction. County government continues to get revenue based on the value of the undeveloped property, but what otherwise would be increased revenue goes into a fund to pay interest on and eventually retire the 20-year bonds.

Consultant David Wilk, president of Greystone Realty Advisors, said the county bears no risk since it doesn't have to pledge its 'full faith and credit' to secure the bonds. Providing "an incentive for the developer to take [that] risk" will ultimately increase the overall tax base and "have a domino effect" boosting the local economy, he said. Rhodunda did not say how much money Commonwealth will seek, but Wilk said the firm "needs help [because it is] subject to the woes of the real-estate market." The arrangement does not just benefit Commonwealth but also can be used to support other redevelopment in the county, he added.

Also authorized by enabling legislation recently enacted by the state General Assembly is creation of special development districts where a dedicated tax is used to pay for infrastructure improvements.

    

CLARIFICATION: Brandywine schools superintendent Jim Scanlon and Brandywine Education Association spokesman David Bradley said that, following the school board's decision on which schools to close, the district administration and union will negotiate a process for determining teacher assignments after the closures. A previous Delaforum article incorrectly gave the impression that an arrangement already is in place to give teachers in the schools to be closed priority in arranging their new assignments. Scanlon said he intended that as an example of the kind of agreement that might come from the negotiations.

    

FISCAL MEASURES APPROVED: County Council approved establishment of a financial advisory council to provide "independent validation of the long-term fiscal projections and implications of revenue and expenditure forecasts." Patterned on the Delaware Economic & Financial Advisory Council, the nine-member panel is to meet and report at least three times a year. Councilman Penrose Hollins, who objected because the measure did not define qualifications for candidates to serve on the panel, and Jea Street voted against passage of the ordinance.

Also enacted at County Council's session on Feb. 12 was an ordinance capping the amount of proceeds from the realty transfer tax that can be budgeted for current operations at 90% of revenue derived from that source during the previous fiscal year. Anything above that will be limited to capital spending and other specified purposes. At a finance committee meeting earlier in the day, Hollins said the restriction will "hamstring our ability to use the money where it is more appropriate." Joining him in voting against passage were Street, John Cartier and William Powers. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Top Brandywine School District officials told a public hearing that the planned closing of schools could put off the next tax referendum for an additional year.

While stopping short of promising that will actually happen, superintendent Jim Scanlon and chief financial officer David Blowman said stretching the commitment not to go back to voters to increase the tax rate before 2010 is a possible benefit to come form reducing operating expenses. The school board is expected to accept Scanlon's recommendation that Darley Road Elementary and Hanby Middle be taken off line at the end of the 2008-09 academic year. It has been estimated that will 'save' nearly $1.7 million annually from the cost of operating those buildings.

At the hearing on Feb. 6 Scanlon said that Darley Road support personnel "will definitely have jobs with the ... district" after that closure. He said all teachers dislocated by the closures will have first choice in selecting new assignments. It is possible, he said, to retain the present attendance zone configuration so that students living in Wilmington will continue to be assigned to all three high schools. The program for academically 'gifted' students will be expanded from the sixth to the eighth grade. Scanlon announced that Harlan Elementary was certified in January for the International Baccalaureate program and said the program for academically 'gifted' students will be expanded from the sixth to the eighth grade. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

"It doesn't matter what buildings we put them (students) in, but what programs we provide for them," Aletha Ramseur, the only board member to comment during the hearing, said.

    

LONGER HOURS: Patrons of the Brandywine branch library are about to get two and a half more hours of service on Sundays. Anne Farley, general manager of the county's community services department, said closing time, cut back to six o'clock as an economy measure last year, will be restored to 8:30 after the Kirkwood branch is closed on Feb. 11. Workers from there are being distributed to other facilities in the library system as the building is demolished and replaced. Farley said also that the department is revising policy to provide greater availability of meeting facilities to community organizations.

    

LOTSA DATA: Buried under an avalanche of largely technical information about the environmental condition of the former Hercules Country Club golf course, County Council's land use committee decided to postpone mandated approval of a plan to replace it with a community of 160 single-family houses to be known as Greenville Overlook. "It's obvious that Council is not comfortable with this. We're not going to be able to vote on this at our next meeting," Council president Paul Clark said as his colleagues began drifting out of the committee meeting on Feb. 5 after more than two hours of conflicting testimony.

Bart Kaplan said Toll Brothers Builders has gone well beyond what is required for approval of the plan and "to make this property safe for families to live on." James Werner, a division director, said the state natural resources department is satisfied with the builder's proposed cleanup plan. Bill Franey, president of the Milltown-Limestone Civic Alliance, claimed, however, that there was insufficient sampling to define the extent of soil contamination and, considering that the Hercules research center is adjacent, did not take into account that "we're dealing here with more than a golf course."

    

Students at Brandywine High are in for what most of them perceive as a radical change next academic year, but principal Jeff Byrem said it is by no means experimental.

Under a block-scheduling plan recently presented to the school's community and ready to be put before the school board for approval this month, four 90-minute class sessions will replace the seven 50-minute sessions that have been around for as long as anyone can remember. Research has shown that will result in students getting more in-depth learning and improving their performance, Byrem said. With so-called study halls eliminated, they will be eligible for  32 graduation credits instead of 28 and many more will get a head start on their future education by earning some advance college credits than is now the case.

Required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act to restructure, the school picked up on an idea little used in Delaware but which "has been successful in hundreds of places across the country," he said. Students will take four full-year courses each semester. Instruction will not have to be rushed to fit into each class period and students can better focus their attention on fewer subjects. Teachers are being given training in professional techniques required by the system. Byrem said a primary intent is not just to impart more data but also to encourage students to do more thinking and writing to better absorb the material. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

District superintendent Jim Scanlon said he "saw a lot of advantages ... [to] using our time more effectively," with block scheduling in the Quakertown, Pa., district, but did not come to Brandywine with an intent to impose it here.

Last updated on February 28, 2008

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