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November 2008

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A MATTER OF CONTEXT: Faced with a certainty that they will be called upon to enact a significant increase in the property-tax rate next year, members of County Council are looking for a way to put certain-to-be-unwelcome news into perspective. "Even reasonably intelligent people don't have a clue what they pay in taxes," Council president Paul Clark said during an inconclusive discussion about the issue during a meeting of Council's finance committee on Nov. 25. On top of that, John Cartier said, "you have a vocal minority who are against taxes -- period."

The difficulty is that county government is required by state law to bill property owners or their mortgage holder for not only the tax which pays for county-provided services but also the much higher levy set by public school districts. The county tax on a typical residence assessed for $75,000  in unincorporated areas of the county is $421. In the Brandywine district, which has the highest tax rate in the county, the tax on the same property is $1,334. Even if stated separately on the bill or their mortgage statement, property owners commonly add the amounts and regard the total as their county tax obligation.

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Consistency and uniformity are the keys to improved discipline among students in the Brandywine district, a 46-member committee told the school board.

While maintaining that "98% of our students follow [our] expectations," Dorrell Green, principal of Harlan Intermediate, said each building should implement a 'character education' program "to de-escalate behaviors for aggressive students." That, he said, basically comes down to clearly and frequently informing students what is expected of them and adopting a 'proactive' stance to head off infractions before they grow into problems. He and Ned Gladfelter, assistant principal at Mount Pleasant High, presented a committee report which included 19 specific recommendations at the board's meeting on Nov. 24.

If they are followed, the district will institute a standard dress code requiring age-appropriate attire. There also will be student handbooks, in "user-friendly language," for each of the three tiers of classes. Each school now has its own dress requirements and handbooks. Teachers and parents be encouraged to 'buy into' the enhanced program and bus drivers and non-teaching building staff will receive training to be part of the effort. Since tardiness is by far the most frequent infraction, Green suggested such steps as synchronizing building clocks and providing 'welcome centers' for high-schoolers who like to stop en route for coffee. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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CLASS SIZES: The Brandywine school board on Nov. 24 granted itself a waiver from the state's limit of 22 children in primary-grades classrooms. It was told that 13 of the 148 classes subject to the law do not meet the standard. That is up from nine last year, but well below the number in each of the five previous years that the limit has been in effect. Seven classes at Mount Pleasant Elementary required a waiver, three at Brandywood, two at Lombardy and one at Maple Lane. Average primary-grade class size in the district crept up slightly to 20.6 children this year from 19.9 a year ago.

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STILL BROADCASTING: W.M.P.H., the f.m. radio station at Mount Pleasant High, will remain on the air while a committee decides whether it is worth the $70,554 the district spends to maintain it. The committee was formed at the school board meeting on Nov. 24 after Edward Harris, director of curriculum, recommended that the station be shut down for a year while the district explores whether to hire an appropriately certified teacher and establish related courses. Superintendent Jim Scanlon said justification for a radio station requires that it be "tied back to the [school's] curriculum."

Board member Ralph Ackerman took issue saying that the district "has an obligation to the Mount Pleasant community" to continue the activity initiated by the class of 1967 when Mount Pleasant was its own school district. He was joined by members Cheryl Siskin and Mark Huxsoll who said the station had value as part of the school's fine-arts program and as a district public communications vehicle. Mount Pleasant student Alex Sprague questioned why operating the station as an extra-curricular activity violates a state education requirement for a certified teacher while athletic teams do not.

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The reason he had come was all but ignored as Robert Ruggio stoutly defended his firm's integrity before the Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee.

"We are sticking to the guidelines. ... We are building to [county] code," he said. Responding to criticism that the developer will offer lesser quality residences in Renaissance Village than promised, the executive vice president of Commonwealth Group said the decision to lower prices was taken to "maintain momentum" by offering a product “that I can sell”  and for which prospective buyers can obtain mortgages. Only one in every 10 would-be buyers are now being approved for housing loans, he said. He said the firm might take a loss on the first units, but would be able to sell at higher prices when market conditions turn around.

At the committee meeting on Nov. 19 Ruggio announced that Middletown-based Anderson Homes will build the first townhouses, with construction to start in early December and samples to be ready in late

A conceptual drawing of  the first section of townhouses to be built in Renaissance Village. Robert Ruggio said the plan is to "mix and match" designs and color schemes.

March or early April, depending upon weather. He said  both Commonwealth and Anderson are experienced and widely respected firms. "We would never look at a project and say we want to build it and get out," he said. He said a request to change design guidelines to allow vinyl siding was to permit "some new products to be used in the future." That was the only reference to the matter officially before the committee. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Ruggio said that the section of the project designated commercial is among the sites being considered as the location of a new public library, now in the early stages of being planned.

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DOWN TO TWO: Brandywine School District has narrowed the field of potential users of the Darley Road school site to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Delaware and Odyssey Charter School, superintendent Jim Scanlon told the Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee. He said the school board will make the choice in January or February. It has been decided to lease the site, rather than sell it, to avoid being entangled in a deed restriction. Whoever ends up with the property will be required to maintain the building to set standards and to allow Brandywine Little League to continue to use the baseball diamonds on the site.

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The county Department of Land Use has drafted an ordinance to revise 'workforce housing' provisions added to the Unified Development Code earlier this year.

Councilman Penrose Hollins, who sponsored the initial ordinance, is expected to introduce the revisions when Council next meets on Nov. 25. It probably will not come to a vote until January or February and it is not clear whether it will apply to the 14 development proposals which contain 'workforce' provisions now under consideration. There has been considerable objection, particularly in the southern portion of the county, centered on the adverse effects on property values and on roads and other infrastructure of allowing greater density in residential developments in return for including a portion of lower-cost units.

The revisions, which the department calls a "clarification" of how the incentives are to be applied, will require additional scrutiny of road and school capacity before granting approval for the projects. Architectural renderings or design guidelines will be required. A key change would require that the 'workforce' units be owner-occupied and they could not become rental units. "Workforce' housing is intended to provide a mix of new housing priced within the means of people employed in mid-level occupations and first-time homebuyers. (CLICK HERE to read pervious Delaforum article.)

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SECOND TERMS:

Superior Court judge Jerome Herlihy administers the oath of office to County Councilman George Smiley on Nov. 18. His grandson (holding the Bible), wife and daughter participated in the rite while Council president Paul Clark looked on. Smiley was elected to one of the six seats added by the controversial expansion of Council in 2004. All six of those members -- all Democrats -- were re-elected to second terms this year. Only William Bell had an opponent. Clark, who also was re-elected, said residents of the county have been "better served by an expanded Council."

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BOND SALE: County Council authorized the sale of up to $25 million worth of general obligation bonds to refinance part of the county's $370 million outstanding debt at a lower interest rate and formerly set details of a previously authorized $90 million bond issue. Acting chief financial officer Ed Milowicki said the refinancing will 'save' between $500,000 and $750,000 in debt service cost. Proceeds of the new issue will be used to finance several continuing capital projects, including rehabilitation of the Brandywine Hundred sanitary sewer network. No new projects are going to be added, he said.

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State government will come up $103 million short of meeting its $3,363 million operating budget this fiscal year, if the latest projections by its official revenue-forecasting panel prove true.

Meeting in special session for only the second time, Delaware Economic & Financial Advisory Council's revenue committee on Nov. 17 knocked $151.7 million off its September forecast for the year ending next June 30. Told by David Gregor, its liaison with the state finance department, that Global Insights, the state's economic consulting firm, "has gone from a mild-recession forecast to a severe recession," the panel reduced its estimates from every key revenue source. Personal income tax was lowered by $44.3 million, corporate income tax by $29.8 million, franchise tax by $25.2 million and the lottery by $22.2 million.

Although the panel's forecast is preliminary to the December one intended to guide her final budget request, Governor Ruth Ann Minner responded by ordering state agencies other than those involved with education to come up with a 7% cut in their current spending plan and to reduce their proposals for fiscal 2010 by 15%. Governor-elect Jack Markel, who as a member of the full council attended the committee meeting, said he is concentrating on finding "cost-saving opportunities" throughout state government but declined, as premature, any comment on possible steps in increase revenue.

The committee now expects state revenue to come in $96 million below actual income in fiscal 2008 this fiscal year and $209.5 million next year.

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One of the founders of the Renaissance movement in Claymont has charged that plans for Renaissance Village now fall well short of what had been promised.

In a public statement George Lossé claimed that the developer engaged in "the old 'bait and switch' gambit" by successively lowering the price range of residences to be built. "The 'switch' began in April, 2007, when Commonwealth-Setting announced they had to adjust the expectation of housing prices 'due to market conditions.' They have been dropping the expectations ever since," he said. The price range most recently mentioned, he said, is between $180,000 and $185,000. Originally the range was to have been between $230,000 and $400,000.

Lossé, who is president of the Claymont Coalition and a member of the community Design Review Advisory Committee, objected to a proposal put before the committee by the developer to permit use of vinyl siding in lieu of masonry and brick exteriors called for by the present design guidelines. "But what other design standards will be sacrificed as the prices are being lowered?" Lossé asked in the statement. He also questioned whether likely purchasers of $180,000 residences will be able to afford $500 in additional annual taxes to support development bonds to be sold by county government to help finance infrastructure. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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Three state legislators endorsed a proposed county ordinance that would suspend use of the 'workforce' housing ordinance pending possible changes or enactment of a replacement law.

Representative Richard Cathcart told the county Planning Board that he will introduce legislation when the General Assembly returns in January to empower the Department of Land Use to reject a development plan if there is not sufficient public school capacity to accommodate the projected increase in population. At a board hearing on Nov. 5 Senator Bruce Ennis said outright repeal of the 'workforce' housing ordinance "would better serve the residents of New Castle County." Senator-elect Bethany Hall-Long said "there is a place for moderate-priced housing," but suggested the existing law is not necessarily the way to provide it.

The lawmakers and several residents of the area of southern New Castle County where several pending residential development plans seek to take advantage of additional allowable density in return for including a portion of 'affordable' housing supported the moratorium sought by County Councilmen William Bell and William Powers. Bell said their intent is to "revisit" the existing law "to correct some of [its] deficiencies we recognize now." He acknowledged that he voted to enact the law, but said he did so without fully realizing its impact on areas without sufficient highway capacity and other infrastructure. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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'CHOICE' REQUESTS: Brandywine School District has received about 1,300 applications so far for students to attend schools during the 2009-10 academic year other than the ones to which they would be assigned based on where they live. Superintendent Jim Scanlon said there are 1,698 seats throughout the district available to students whose parents want to use the state's school-choice law. However, he said he could not estimate how many requests will be granted until the applications are processed and it is determined which schools stand to receive students and which would lose them.

Available seats include 603 at the high school level, 507 in middle schools and 588 in elementary schools. "We did receive applications to 'choice' into and out of every one of our schools," he said. With the closure of two schools at the end of this academic year, there will be fewer 'choice' students than the approximately 2,200 enrolled this year. Nevertheless, Scanlon added, he expects there will be enough room in at least some of the schools to admit children who live outside of the district. There are about 400 of those this year. The district will continue to accept 'choice' applications through Jan. 14, 2009. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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LINED UP FOR CHOICE:

Some 200 parents and other family members lined up before dawn on Nov. 3 to submit applications to enable children to attend schools under the state's school-choice law. Brandywine School District officials began accepting the applications on a first-come-first-served basis at about 6:40 a.m. The woman who was second in line said that, by then, she had camped out nearly 22 hours. The large number seeking 'choice' assignments is the result of the district's intention to close two schools at the end of this academic year, change from a four-tier class alignment to three tiers and having redrawn attendance zone boundaries. Delaforum will provide additional coverage later in the day. [CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.]

Last updated on November 26, 2008

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