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October 2008

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FORECLOSURES ON THE RISE: The New Castle County sheriff's office sold 210 residential properties at auction during the three months ended September 30, a 57% increase over the third quarter of 2007. Year to date, the number of sales was 64% higher than a year earlier. The nine-month total, 556, topped 471 for all of 2007. Mortgage foreclosures accounted for 87% of the 2008 sales, according to data made public by the county Department of Community Services. There have been 1,964 mortgage complaints filed with Superior Court after homeowners missed their fourth mortgage payment so far this year. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

CONDUIT: A nonprofit organization has been set up to enable individuals or businesses to donate to county government events or facilities without compromising ethics regulations or going through a somewhat complicated process to have the gifts accepted. Richard Przywara, its president, said New Castle County Pride enabled I.N.G. Direct, a bank, to finance renovation of a playground and unspecified businesses to sponsor a recent 'sleep under the stars' campout. Przywara, a former chief administrative officer for the county, is serving as a volunteer as are Catherine Dukes, vice president, and Alex Meitsler, treasurer.

Przywara said 'friends' groups can now funnel tax-deductible donations to the county without having to go though the process to obtain Internal Revenue Service certification as nonprofit. County government can obtain event sponsorships from firms which do business with the county without the risk of conflicts of interest. Pride will only manage the money and assure accountability, he said. It will not do any soliciting. It also can hire, for instance, event entertainers without going through the process of contracting for professional services, he told a County Council committee meeting on Oct. 28.

    

County government is asking for $8 million of federal 'bailout' money to finance buying and reselling some foreclosed houses.

The local program will do nothing to help those who have lost homes, but is intended to prevent the properties from deteriorating and becoming neighborhood blights, Anne Farley, general manager of the Department of Community Services, told County Council. But, she explained, it will protect surrounding property values and avoid having to spend an estimated $14,000 on police and code-enforcement activity while the properties are vacant. The federal program, she explained at a Council committee meeting on Oct 28, was designed to pump money into banks and other mortgage lenders and wipe out their bad debts.

To be known as the "neighborhood stabilization program," the local effort initially will target 40 properties to be bought at sheriff sales for immediate resale, rehabilitation or replacement, depending on condition. Subsequent resale will provide money for an additional 60 to 80 properties, she said. The properties will be in zip code areas covering Elsmere and suburbs southwest of Wilmington, New Castle and Bear, where the number of foreclosed properties going to sheriff sale have been the highest, she said. She said an added benefit will be the ability to "provide affordable homeownership and renter opportunities."

The $8 million the county is seeking is part of $19.6 million allocated to the Delaware State Housing Authority. That money will not actually be available until March although grant applications are due by Oct. 31.

    

Residents will have to decide whether they want a larger police force or to maintain other public services at at least current levels, according to county officials.

As Council prepares to vote on whether to approve the first step in a $37.5 million five-year plan to significantly increase authorized personnel strength of the force and the compliment which mans the 9-1-1 emergency call center, about 50 people who turned out on Oct. 27 for a meeting called by Councilman Robert Weiner took aim at parks and libraries, the runners-up in the levels of government spending. Chief administrative officer Jeffrey Bullock told the meeting that a series of  'listening sessions' will be held soon in an effort to gauge public feeling as the administration plans a budget for the next fiscal year.

"The county must cut services," said Charles Landry, president of the Council of Civic Organizations of Brandywine Hundred. Council members must "say no to those people who don't want to see their [favorite] services cut," he added. Consensus of other attenders appeared to be support for more spending on public safety, but against a tax increase to pay for it. Police chief Rick Gregory acknowledged that the present economic crisis is hardly an appropriate time to ask for more money, but presented data indicating the force is steadily falling behind in its ability to cope with the growth of crime in suburban neighborhoods. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

The Council vote could come as soon as its Oct. 28 session unless sentiment among those members who favor delaying it at least a month to get further community reaction prevails.

    

BACK ON SCHEDULE: An as-yet unidentified Delaware-based firm in early November will obtain building permits to begin construction of the first residential units in Renaissance Village, Robert Ruggio, executive vice president of Commonwealth Group, told the Claymont Design Review Advisory Council. He said there will be model units ready for prospective buyers to inspect by February. Despite a three-week suspension of work on the site, which Ruggio said was the result of an administrative-type delay obtaining Delaware Department of Transportation approval of street plans, the project is back on schedule, he said.

Although he acknowledged "we're all hurting" as a result of the nationwide credit crisis and several builders in the state have suspended operations, he said some types of new houses are "selling now as they were two years ago." In response to a question at its meeting on Oct. 22 from council chairman John DeCostanza, who said he wanted to dispel rumors that the project is in danger, Ruggio said, "We feel pretty good that we're at the right place at the right time." The first units at Renaissance Village are to be built at the northwest corner of the tract adjacent to Darley Road. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Stoltz Real Estate Partners has offered to revise four controversial development proposals in return for active support from at least one major civic organization.

County Councilman Robert Weiner on Oct. 21 made public a letter from Brad Cobun, Stoltz's chief operating officer, to the Kennett Pike Association in which he offered what Weiner referred to as a "take it or leave it" compromise. It set a deadline of Nov. 7 for the organization to decide whether it will "cooperate with Stoltz and proactively support all four projects." The requested agreement also would require the organization to seek Department of Land Use and other governmental approvals "in an expedited manner." Weiner said he will recommend that the civic organization reject Stoltz's bid.

The Stoltz letter refers to a prior private meeting with County Executive Christopher Coons and what apparently were other meetings with "several community leaders," who are not identified. Weiner, whose district includes or abuts the project sites, indicated he was not included in any such meetings. The projects involved are the 'Shops at Brandywine' at Concord Pike and Naamans Road, Barley Mill Plaza, Greenville Center off Kennett Pike and the former Columbia Gas-M.B.N.A. Bank property on Montchanin Road. All four have met with strong community opposition. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

The Stoltz letter refers to "a good-faith effort to address a number of concerns that we have heard from the community."

    

PRINCIPALS APPOINTED: James Grant, principal of Darley Road Elementary School, will become principal of Claymont Elementary after Darley Road closes at the end of this academic year and Claymont changes from an intermediate to an elementary school. Betty Pinchin, current principal at Claymont, will retire. Ronald Mendenhall, principal of Hanby Middle, which also will close, will become an associate principal at P.S. du Pont, which will become a middle school. In the newly-established position Mendenhall will "help with the many transitions taking place there," district superintendent Jim Scanlon said.

    

County Council received a proposed ordinance that would temporarily suspend the 'workforce housing' program, but is unlikely to consider it before the turn of the year.

As with all modifications of the Unified Development Code, the measure, introduced on Oct. 14 by William Bell and William Powers, will first receive a public hearing before the Planning Board followed by recommendations from the board and the Department of Land Use. Both are expected to recommend against passage. It also is doubtful if the sponsors will be able to muster the seven Council votes required to enact the ordinance. The suspension would enable Council "to hear the complaints and revisit the provisions" of the current law, which provides development incentives in return for providing 'affordable' housing.

Council also received ordinances authorizing the first installments on a $37.5 million expansion of the Department of Public Safety. Just over $1 million from the budget reserve would pay for adding 22 officers and seven civilians to the police force and $551,853 would go for 10 new emergency-communications positions. An additional $215,652 would be spent on communications software. Council could act on those measures as soon as its Oct. 28 session. Also put before Council was a measure to spend $527,282 to settle a suit arising from the Enron bankruptcy in lieu of risking $2.8 million by pursing the litigation. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article about 'workforce housing'. CLICK HERE to read previous Delafourm article about the public safety project.)

Another proposed ordinance would authorize spending $25,000 received from state government to pay for a 'needs assessment' related to a building a larger public library in Claymont.

    

The Coons administration plan to enlarge the county police force and emergency communications unit would cost an estimated $37.5 million spread over the next four years.

Data supplied by acting chief financial officer Edward Milowicki at Delaforum's request included pricetags of $1 million this fiscal year and $3.6 million in the year which begins July 1, 2009, to add police. The communications component is pegged at $768,000 and $1 million, respectively. The two-year total would have to be covered by a property-tax increase in the neighborhood of 5% enacted by County Council in May to take effect with bills due by Sept. 30, 2009. Because paying for additional personnel is a continuing obligation, the combined estimated cost would rise annually to $13.4 million in fiscal 2013.

Here's how the estimates break down by fiscal year:

Fiscal year:

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Total

Police

$1,001,496

$3,558,012

$6,342,204

$9,197,694

$11,921,018

$32,020,424

Communications

$767,505

$1,038,060

$1,083,233

$1,131,254

$1,478,611

$5,498,663

    Total

$1,769,001

$4,596,072

$7,425,437

$10,328,948

$13,399,629

$37,519,087

SOURCE: New Castle County Department of Finance

Chief administrative officer Jeffrey Bullock told Council's public safety committee on Oct. 7 that the next step in beefing up public safety services will focus on paramedics. That is a more complex issue because the state legislature in expected to refine the respective state and county obligations in financing emergency medical operations. Nevertheless, Bullock said, the administration is committed to looking at delivery of paramedic services with the same long-term approach as it applied to police and communications. "It's not that we're sitting around looking at ways to spend more money," he added. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

HISTORIC ZONING: County Council at its next plenary session on Oct. 14 will likely confer historic-zoning protection on the house in Claymont where 18th Century illustrator Felix Darley lived, worked and hosted prominent authors. John Cartier, sponsor of the rezoning resolution, said it is intended that the state-owned building at Philadelphia Pike and Darley Road provide quarters for Claymont Renaissance Development Corp., Claymont Historical Society and his own in-district office. State government will spend $200,000 to renovate the building, which formerly was a bed-and-breakfast inn, he said.

    

COMING BACK: David Culver, who earlier this year resigned as a planning manager with the county Department of Land Use to become planning director for Havre de Gras, Md., has been hired back to be general manager of that department. He succeeds Charles Baker, who resigned to become executive director of the Chittenden County (Vt.) Regional Planning Commission. Since Baker's  departure, George Haggerty and James Smith have served as acting co-general managers of the department. A press statement issued by County Executive Christopher Coons said Culver will be paid between $83,000 and $129,000 a year.

    

The stage has been set for a new round of debate in County Council over 'workforce' housing, a.k.a. 'affordable' housing. But it's not clear precisely what will be debated.

After Anne Farley, general manager of the Department of Community Services, briefed a Council committee on the differences among three county housing programs, Councilman Bill Bell announced that he and William Powers intend to introduce legislation to suspend action on seven pending development plans which include 'workforce' units. He said allowing increased density in those developments would tax capacity of rural roads in the southern part of the county. Jea Street, however, claimed that he detected vestiges of racial discrimination cloaked in 'quality of life' and 'character of the community' arguments.

"There is some confusion between 'workforce' housing which is not subsidized and Section Eight which is subsidized," Farley said at the meeting on Sept. 30. Also, she added, there is a misconception that Section Eight housing is, by definition, substandard. After a seven-year hiatus, the county is going to begin accepting applications for Section Eight vouchers which supplement their holders' ability to afford rents, she said. Between the two programs, she explained, is the homeowner incentive program which is to be extended to include more county neighborhoods. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on October 30, 2008

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