delaforum

March 2008

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TROLLEYS RETURNING: Delaware Transit plans to reroute its Route 32-Wilmington Trolley in June, a move that will restore public transportation to Market Street. But when that happens, a ride will cost nearly five times as much as it does now -- $1.15 instead of 25. The vehicle usually used on the route between downtown and the Christina Riverfront is not actually a trolley, but a small bus which loosely resembles an early 20th Century electricity-powered trolley. A half century or so ago, real 'trackless trolleys' used the city's main street with all Delaware Coach Co. routes converging between Fourth and Eighth Streets.

    

CAPITAL SPENDING: Nearly half of the $42.6 million that county government plans to appropriate for capital projects in the coming fiscal year is earmarked for the age-ravished sanitary-sewer system in Brandywine Hundred. Included is $11.8 million for rehabilitation of the lines serving communities and $7.8 million to rebuild the North Delaware Interceptor along Governor Printz Boulevard. The total for sewer work throughout the county is $27.5 million, but that does not include extension of the system into the area south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, which is being financed by development impact fees.

    

SHRINKING SURPLUS: Remember the $230.5 million county government nest egg -- variously referred to as a surplus and a reserve fund -- which figured prominently in the 2004 election campaign? Some of it is still around and continues to be used to finance what otherwise would be deficit spending. It's sewer-fund component is now projected to run out in July, 2009, and the general operations fund in May, 2011. Here is the accounting that  Michael Strine, the county's chief financial officer, provided on Mar. 25 to Council's finance committee (the figures are in millions of dollars):

    

A proposed ordinance introduced into County Council by Robert Weiner on Mar. 25 would ban selling or giving away dogs younger than eight weeks "when they have not yet learned to control their urge to bite."

    

SECOND THOUGHTS: Struck by objections to 'unintended consequences' of the county law enacted last year requiring licensing of everyone doing building construction or maintenance work, several Council members called for a major overhaul. "When we've done something wrong, we have to step back and take another look at it," George Smiley said. "I believe we've stepped outside the intent of this law," Stephanie McClellan said. George Reda, the ordinance's sponsor, did not dispute his colleagues' objections, but said the law has been in effect for only two months and asked to be given "at least six months to work out the details."

Objections voiced at a meeting of Council's land use committee on Mar. 25 centered mainly on the apparent burden of the law on businesses and apartment complexes which employ their own tradespeople. It originally was presented as a tool to protect residents from 'fly-by-night' operators. So far, only 2,025 licenses have been issued, fewer than 10% of the originally estimated 23,000 contractors who would be subject to the law. George Haggerty, assistant general manager of the land use department, said code enforcement officers and building inspectors so far have found only three cases of working without a required license. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

CUTS COMING: Some school construction projects may be put on hold as a result of significant cuts in the state budget for the coming fiscal year. "No way are [school districts] going to be left out of whatever solutions are determined for '09," Governor Minner's chief of staff Mark Brainard said during an appearance at the University of Delaware's Academy of Lifelong Learning. That, he added, applies to  financing  both operations and capital projects. In response to a question from the audience, he declined to comment specifically on Brandywine district's plan to build new Lancashire and Brandywood Elementary Schools.

Brainard said on Mar. 24 that the governor is looking for "creative ideas" to address the problem brought about by the faltering national economy and invited the public to offer suggestions. "There won't be any fiscal gimmicks," he said, hinting that the model used in similar circumstances during Minner's first year in office, when a bipartisan effort attacked a projected $300 million shortfall by evenly splitting cuts and increased taxes and fees, could be used again in her final year. "The governor intends to go out strong" and will do nothing that might jeopardize the state's gilt-edge reputation in the Wall Street bond market, he said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

DROPOUT: Brandywine school board member Sandra Skelley has withdrawn as a candidate for re-election to a second term. That leaves Ralph Ackerman unopposed in his bid to gain the seat he previously held for two five-year terms. Ackerman was Skelley's predecessor on the board and served as its president for a time. Also unopposed for re-election is the current president, Joseph Brumskill. Still facing a challenge at the May election is Aletha Ramseur. She was appointed to the board to complete the term of Nancy Doorey, who resigned. Cheryl Siskin seeks to replace Ramseur for the one year remaining in that term. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

BUS SITE SOUGHT: Brandywine School District is searching for a property already zoned for industrial use as the site for a new bus depot. "There are a lot of issues with our [present] bus yard. We need to find [a new location] that is appropriate," school board member Mark Huxoll said. Superintendent Jim Scanlon previously denied that the Darley Road Elementary School site is under consideration. That also applies to the Hanby Middle site, he said at the board meeting on Mar. 17. Both of those schools are to be closed after the 2008-09 academic year.

Martha Carper, wife of one of Delaware's U.S. senators, and her Brandywine Hills neighbor, Beth Stark, urged the district administration to take a closer look at proposed attendance zones after the closures to eliminate wide disparity among the remaining schools in the proportion of students from low-income households. "Many parents will opt to choice out of schools with higher proportions of [students eligible for] free and reduced[-price] lunches," Carper said. Scanlon said the board will review community response at a workshop session before approving the final plan at a regular meeting in either May or June. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Like them or not, County Council members must vote to approve development plans which the Department of Land Use has certified as compliant with the Unified Development Code.

In an unusual open-doors discussion touching on potential legal controversies, county attorney Gregg Wilson recently told Council's executive committee that code provision -- which an earlier Council enacted 10 years ago -- jibes with constitutional protection of property rights. If Council were to fail to ratify approval by the department's planning professionals, he said, individual members who voted 'no' could be sued. "You'd have the burden of demonstrating [in court] that your action wasn't arbitrary or capricious. He did not get into what might happen if Council, individually or as a body, abstained from voting or refused to vote.

The issue came up in two recent controversies. Area residents raised the specter of environmental danger in an unsuccessful attempt to block development of the former Hercules golf course and Paladin Club residents alleged violation of the state condominium law while opposing construction of townhouses there. Although he said he did not want to get into specific examples, Wilson said county government's authority does not extend to passing judgment on such claims. "We're not the last stop. ... [Opponents] can always take the applicants to court," Council president Paul Clark said.

If an affirmative vote on the plans is preordained, councilwoman Stephanie McClellan asked, "why on earth do we vote on them at all?"

    

County Council received a report claiming accomplishments in diversifying the county government workforce, but some members didn't agree that it showed much achievement.

"It just tells us who's here, not their experiences," said Stephanie McClellan, referring to possible discriminatory practices or attitudes. Terminations statistics, for instance, did not differentiate between those who left voluntarily and those who were fired. There were no data about disciplinary actions. "In three years, the progress I see is woefully deficient," Jea Street said after chief human resources officer Charlotte Crowell presented the report at a meeting of Council's executive committee on Mar. 11. She said it demonstrated a continuing "commitment to diversity in the workforce" since the Coons administration took office in 2005.

The key chart showed that females made up 37.6% of the 1,484 county employees on the rolls at the end of 2007, compared to 36.7% of 1,576 as the Gordon administration bowed out at the end of 2004. The portion of 'minorities' -- primarily blacks -- grew to 17.5% from 17.1%. That actually works out to 20 fewer females and 10 fewer 'minorities'. The benchmark was 2000 state labor department data showing the total workforce in New Castle County as 51.4% female and 26.9% 'minority'. "Diversity in [county government] is more than race and gender. [It] also includes backgrounds, culture, education, skills, life experiences ...," the report said.

The committee asked Crowell to return so it can delve further into the situation when time allotted for the meeting ran out.

    

PREPARING THE WAY?: In an unusual mid-month move, County Executive Christopher Coons announced that his administration has lowered its estimate of how much revenue county government will take in this fiscal year by $4.7 million. The 'press release' issued on Mar. 12, fueled speculation that Coons will seek an election-year  increase in the property-tax rate when he delivers his budget message to County Council on Mar. 18. The 'release' also said about $600,000 is being knocked from projected revenue in the separate sanitary-sewer fund, which was taken as a strong hint a fee increase also is in the offing.

Chief financial officer Michael Strine briefs Council on the budget outlook quarterly, instead of monthly as he used to do. Monthly reports continue to be posted on the county website. Strine attended a meeting of Council's finance committee on Mar. 11, but was not called upon to answer any questions. That, too, is unusual. As this article was being prepared, the end-of-January report remained the most recent website posting. As previously reported by Delaforum, Coons and Strine recently painted an extremely gloomy picture of county finances to civic leaders and acknowledged that a property-tax hike is being considered. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

SCHOOL BOARD CONTESTS: Last-minute filings at the deadline on Mar. 7 will result in contested elections for two of the three Brandywine school board seats up for election in May. Ralph Ackerman, who previously served two terms on the board and has proposed a separate Claymont district, will attempt to get back his old seat from his successor, Sandra Skelley. Cheryl Siskin will challenge Althea Ramseur, who was appointed by the board last year after the resignation of Nancy Doorey, for the final year of Doorey's term. Board president Joseph Brumskill will be unopposed in his bid for re-election. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

TRYING TO MAKE A COMEBACK: Ralph Ackerman, who previously served two terms on the Brandywine school board and has proposed establishing a separate Claymont district, will attempt to get back his old seat. He has filed to challenge his successor, Sandra Skelley, in the May election. Skelly is seeking re-election to a second term. No one has signed up to oppose board president Joseph Brumskell, who wants another five-year term, or Althea Ramseur, who was appointed by the board last year to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Nancy Doorey and seeks to remain for the final year of Doorey's term. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

MORE OF THE SAME: As the Department of Elections prepared to close nominations to run for seats on the Brandywine school board, it appears likely the May elections will be no contests. No one had signed up to challenge incumbent board president Joseph Brumskill and members Althea Ramseur and Sandra Skelley. The filing deadline is the end of the business day on Mar. 7. Brumskill and Skelley want another five-year term while Ramseur, who was appointed by the board last year to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Nancy Doorey, seeks to remain for the final year of Doorey's term.

    

RUMOR DENIED: Brandywine schools superintendent Jim Scanlon, in response to a Delaforum inquiry, categorically denied a persistent rumor that the Darley Road Elementary School site will be the new location for the district's school-bus depot. It has long been intended that the present depot in northeast Wilmington be replaced. As far as can be determined there has been no effort so far to locate a new site. A deed restriction requires that, if the Darley Road property is not used for "educational purposes," Colorado Fuel & Iron Corp., which sold it to the former Claymont district, be given first option to buy it back. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on March 30, 2008

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