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April 2009

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TERMS DISCLOSED: Jim Scanlon's initial annual salary as superintendent of the West Chester Area School District will be $230,000. According to the most recent information made public by the Brandywine School District, he is making $170,417 this fiscal year. Except for an automobile allowance, Scanlon's contract will contain no other perquisites, the Pennsylvania district's spokesman Robert Partridge told Delaforum on Apr. 29. He said that Penn Search, a service provided by the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Educational Leadership, 'found' Scanlon and other candidates for the position.

The Brandywine district will be led by a soon-to-be-hired interim superintendent after Scanlon steps down to take his new job on July 1. Summer weeks and the start of the new academic year in August will be anything but slack times this year as Brandywine vacates two schools and prepares for a wholesale shift in elementary- and middle school enrollments as the result of new attendance zones. The board will engage a search firm to find a permanent superintendent. The transition process most likely will begin behind closed doors at an executive session of the board scheduled for May 7. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

ELECTION REFORM: If the state legislature wants to cut the cost of school board elections, it should change the process to have candidates stand only in the nominating district in which they live, Brandywine board member Ralph Ackerman said. The General Assembly is considering a measure that would move the voting from each May to every other November as part of the general election and cut members' terms from five to four years. "The only thing November does is give it (the election) a [political] party label," Ackerman said during a discussion of pending state legislation at the Brandywine board's meeting on Apr. 27.

Nominating districts were introduced in the four conventional public school districts in New Castle County during court-ordered desegregation as a bit of reverse gerrymandering to assure the city of Wilmington representation on the seven-member school boards. Ackerman said that all board members should be considered as representing their respective districts and spared the expense and possible conflicts of seeking election and serving 'at large'. He also expressed opposition to consolidating school districts, pointing out that the countywide district established in the original desegregation order proved unwieldy.

    

Some County Council members are beginning to question the wisdom of looking to staff reductions as far and away the primary medicine to cure budget ills.

"Maybe there are people who need to be hired," Council president Paul Clark said after Mike Svaby, acting general manager of the Department of Special Services, ticked off more than a dozen of the department's 57 vacant positions and gave specific reasons why they should not remain vacant. Testifying on Apr. 27 at a public hearing on the department's proposed $8.9 million budget for the coming fiscal year, Svaby said that, because "we've been in so tenuous times," the department has been loathe to seek exemptions from the hiring freeze County Executive Christopher Coons has imposed.

"I understand the hiring freeze, but there are positions that are still critical," said Councilman William Bell. "We have them funded; why aren't we filling them?" The department wants to keep 41 of the vacant positions in its next budget, but not provide financing for them. Four vacant positions would be totally eliminated. Councilman David Tackett noted that personnel costs account for 45% of its proposed budget -- the lowest of any department -- versus close to 75% of the overall county government budget. Bell said having enough skilled workers on the payroll would reduce dependence on more costly outside contractors. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Chief administrative officer Tracey Surles told the hearing that "there is still a hiring freeze on [both] essential and non-essential employees."

    

MONEY COMING: Brandywine School District will receive between $2.5 million and $2.6 million in federal stimulus money during the next few weeks and another $3 million next autumn, chief financial officer David Blowman told the school board. It also stands to share in the $110 million designated for education that the state will get, he said. No decision has been made on how to spend the initial grants, he said, but professional development and instructional technology are the leading candidates. Although the grants can be spent any tune during the next two years, "we have no intention of holding onto any of these funds," he said.

The district will feel some effects from state government's financial problems during the coming fiscal year, but they are not likely to be as dire as originally thought, Blowman said at the board meeting on Apr. 27. "Scenarios that saw class sizes going up to 27 or 28 are not going to happen," he said. Statewide, he and his counterparts in other districts "don't see massive wholesale cuts [coming] in public education," he reported. However, he added, Brandywine still will have to lay off some teachers and other employees. While the outlook now appears brighter, "we're still a long way from [being] out of the woods," he said.

    

HE GOT THE JOB: The West Chester (Pa.) Area School District board, as expected, unanimously approved hiring Jim Scanlon to be schools superintendent, effective July 1. Scanlon simultaneously resigned the like Brandywine School District position, with the same effective date. A press statement issued by the West Chester district on Apr. 27 said Scanlon agreed to a five-year contract, but did not disclose his initial salary. He served in Brandywine for two-and-a-half years. According to the most recent information made public by the district, he is making $170,417 this fiscal year. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

DARLEY LEASE: The Brandywine school board reaffirmed its decision to negotiate a lease arrangement with the Claymont chapter of the Boys and Girls Clubs for the Darley Road School property. Before the unanimous vote at its meeting on Apr. 27, the seven members of the board all said nothing they heard at a recent public hearing -- held after their initial vote -- had induced them to change their minds. "I do not believe a local board should be involved with chartering a school," said board member Mark Huxsoll. Odyssey Charter School also had sought use of the site after the Darley Road Elementary is closed in June. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article)

    

County Executive Christopher Coons and Wilmington Mayor James Baker signaled that they intend to follow through with threatened lay-offs if they don't receive concessions from unions.

Coons's office announced that nine paramedics-in-training will be let go on May 6. "I have no choice but to follow through on the choice made by the membership of [their union] not to accept an alternative path to ... keep everyone employed," the executive said in a press statement issued on Apr. 23. That union rejected a 5% pay cut. Although the lay-offs will not affect any of the 81 paramedics now on regular duty, the service has 12 vacant positions, some of which the trainees would fill. Significance of setting May 6 as the effective date of the lay-offs was not apparent since previously announced pay cuts do not take effect until July 1.

Baker, meanwhile, said in a separate press statement that he has directed William Montgomery, his chief of staff, "to begin the process of identifying and then notifying as many as 75 unionized city employees that they will be laid off in the fiscal year beginning July 1." All the unions representing city government workers rejected a proposal to freeze wages; they were not asked to accept salary reductions. Baker's statement denied union claims that his administration has not eliminated "wasteful spending." On the contrary, he said, initiatives the unions cited "will actually help [resolve] the city's fiscal crisis in the short- and long terms." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

County Councilman John Cartier said he will donate 5% of his salary during the coming fiscal year to New Castle County Pride. That will be equivalent to voluntarily taking a pay cut.

Cartier, who represents the Claymont, Bellefonte and Edgemoor areas, made the announcement at a meeting of the Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee on Apr. 22. A few hours earlier County Executive Christopher Coons told a closed-to-the-public meeting of non-union employees that their paychecks will be 5% lighter starting July 1. As previously reported, three unions have agreed to cuts, but one representing public safety workers other than police has rejected Coons's request that it do likewise. The administration reportedly is still negotiating the issue with the union representing police officers.

Cartier said he does not know if any of his Council colleagues intend to follow suit. Their annual salaries are set by state law at $40,686, but the law apparently provides that, with some restrictions, they can change them by enacting an ordinance. Serving on Council is considered a part-time job. County Pride is an autonomous organization established last year to avoid ethics conflicts while channeling corporate and individual contributions to county-sponsored activities. Coons's office said in a press statement that more than 900 of county government's approximately 1,500 employees are now subject to pay cuts. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Council plans to hear about any layoffs that Coons will propose in lieu of pay cuts on May 18. Although billed as the last of a series of public hearings on the proposed budget, that session is scheduled to be held behind closed doors.

    

OPEN AT LAST: The second section of Fox Point State Park was officially opened to the public during an 'Earth Day' event on Apr. 22. The state Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control has spent the past 14 years remediating environment contamination of the 45-acre second section. The first 15-acre section of the park was opened in 1995. The park, which eventually is planned to extend from Edgemoor to Claymont, sits on land mostly reclaimed with industrial waste and sludge from the Delaware River by the former Penn Central Railroad which had intended it to be developed as industrial sites.

    

ESTIMATES ENDORSED: County government's independent financial advisory council agreed that the revenue projections supporting the tax increase and cost-cutting in the proposed fiscal 2010 budget accurately reflect the outlook for the economy. Members agreed on Apr. 21 that the real estate market -- upon which county finances are heavily dependent -- shows signs of 'bottoming out' but that recovery will be slow. Federal incentives and lower interest rates are likely to release "pent-up demand" during the coming months, Mark Oller said. "I think the bottom is pretty darned close," Joseph Larotonda agreed. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

FOLLOW-UP: After offering the carrot of an 'amnesty week', county librarians will begin wielding a stick. A get-tough policy will be initiated to curb what officials consider an excessive drain of books and other material. Effective July 1, patrons who rack up $5 or more in overdue fines will have Internet access to catalogs and data bases blocked in addition to being flagged if they try to check out material. New patrons will get temporary cards for use during the first six months and be limited in the number of items they can reserve or take out. Through Apr. 18, overdue library items are being accepted without a penalty.

    

County officials are considering partly reversing the most publicly visible service cut so far and reopening some libraries on Thursday evenings and Sundays.

"[Having] the whole library system shut down on the same days is not beneficial," Anne Farley, general manager of the Department of Community Services, told a County Council budget hearing. But, she explained, changing that does not indicate any lessening of the proverbial 'pain' that residents will be expected to bear in light of the county's fiscal problems. On the contrary, her testimony at the hearing on Apr. 13 included an array of additional cuts planned in order to effect a 4.6% reduction in her department's spending plans for the coming fiscal year.

Not only will there be the same net reduction in library operating hours, but the allocation to buy new books and support for contractual libraries -- including Wilmington Institute facilities -- will both be slashed by 8%. Rockwood Museum will be closed on Mondays and Tuesdays and activity centers on Fridays. The county no longer will offer seniors transportation to medical appointments and will end the promotion of locally-grown farm produce. The 'sleep under the stars' and Christmas holiday open house will not be held. Not publishing seasonal program guides in the News-Journal newspaper will 'save' $100,000, Farley said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Council members appeared resigned to the service cuts. In light of the expected 25% increase in the property-tax rate, "how do I sell sporting events, day care and camps?" Timothy Sheldon said.

    

MORE CUTS ORDERED: County Council will likely direct the constitutional offices to take a sharper pencil to their budget requests. A non-binding resolution to that effect, sponsored by Councilman William Tansey and co-sponsored by at least four of his colleagues, is scheduled to come before Council at its Apr. 14 plenary session. Council members were critical at a recent budget hearing of elected 'row office' officials --  particularly recorder of deeds Michael Kozikowski -- for not effecting deeper cuts at a time when the slump in real estate activity has significantly reduced their workload. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delafourm article.)

    

LOOMS LARGE: New Castle County government has become  more dependent on the property tax for financial support as other sources decline. Acting chief financial officer Ed Milowicki told a County Council budget hearing on Apr. 6 that the proposed fiscal 2010 operations budget anticipates the tax generating $106.4 million, or 65% of all revenue. That would be up from an anticipated $84.3 million, or 50%, this year. The deep slump in the real-estate market has made the realty transfer tax, which was relied upon heavily in previous years, considerably less of a contributor -- 9.4% of the total in fiscal 2010, versus 27% in fiscal 2006.

While there has been a noticeable pickup in real estate activity in recent weeks, he said it has mostly  involved refinancings, which are not subject to the realty transfer tax. Also, he pointed out, first-time home buyers do not have to pay the tax regardless of how much the property costs. Tax-exempt property -- which amounts to 22.6% of all property based on assessments -- 'costs' county government $30.9 million in revenue not received. Council president Paul Clark questioned whether the health-provider exemption Christiana Care holds applies to profit-making structures financed largely by doctors on its hospital campus.

    

It looks as if New Castle County government will get a federal stimulus energy-efficiency grant after all. And, thanks to its efforts, so may county governments in six other states.

"It could be a significant amount," County Executive Christopher Coons told officials of 'umbrella' civic organizations. He said at their bi-monthly meeting on Apr. 2 that he had been notified that the U.S. Department of Energy had acknowledged that Delaware's three counties were overlooked when the state's eligibility for  $9.6 million was apportioned. The $3.2 billion energy program provision in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act specifies that counties with a population of 200,000 or more are eligible for grants. Delaware is one of seven states where no counties were included in the original eligibility allocations.

When that was discovered during its continuing monitoring of the law, Coons's office immediately contacted Vice President Joseph Biden's staff. Biden has been given responsibility for seeing to it that the economic stimulus law is fairly applied. Installation of solar-energy panels on large county-owned buildings has been high on the county's wish list since a stimulus package was first talked about during the pre-inaugural transition to the Obama administration. Coons said the Government Center building in Corporate Commons would be the first to be paneled if the money does come through. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

ADAMANT ABOUT IT: If no acceptable alternative is forthcoming "we will lay off 75 or more [county government] employees on July 1," County Executive Christopher Coons declared. "I do not want to do it," he said, but indicated there is no way around such a move. Negotiations with unions representing a majority of county workers are continuing, "but time is running out," he added. Coons gave no indication of where the talks stand beyond saying that "we are waiting for a counter-proposal" from the unions. Meanwhile, he said, departments have begun the process of determining which positions would be included in lay-offs.

In addition to eliminating or not providing financing for vacant positions in the proposed budget for the coming fiscal year, the Coons administration is looking to cut personnel costs by $4.8 million through either furloughs -- which it favors -- or lay-offs. It also is seeking a 25% increase in the property-tax rate. Coons said that, without changes in the county's revenue structure, the higher rate would hold for two or three years. However, "we cannot tax our way out of this [economic situation] and we shouldn't try [to]," he said at a meeting with officers of 'umbrella' civic organizations on Apr. 2. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

REVENUE ENHANCEMENT: "Love is going to cost more in Delaware" if New Castle County clerk of the peace Kenneth Boulden's idea is approved by the General Assembly, he told a County Council budget hearing. He will seek statewide legislation to require ministers and others who perform weddings to be licensed. "You have to have a license to be a plumber", so why shouldn't marriers, he reasoned. Getting a  license and renewing it periodically would require paying a fee. Fees also could be charged for filing marriage certificates. That, he said, would result in "a significant enhancement" of county revenue.

Council members reviewing budgets for the county's constitutional offices at the hearing on Mar. 30 came down on recorder of deeds Michael Kozikowski for retaining a full staff at a time when the real estate slump has reduced his office's workload. Meanwhile, register of wills Diane Clarke Streett told the hearing that inability to replace two long-time staff members who have retired, because of the county hiring freeze, has left her office shorthanded and noticeably lengthened the time it takes to process wills. Kozikowski said it may be possible to temporarily assign some staff members to other offices. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

RULING UPHELD: The state Supreme Court ruled that the county Board of Assessment Review was correct in reducing the assessment on Verizon Corp.'s poles, wires and other outdoors equipment from $190 million to $111 million. The issue involved how much the company could depreciate those assets. Applying the current tax rate to that difference indicates that the ruling would 'cost' county government $444,000 a year. County officials did not publicly disclose the court ruling, which was handed down on Mar. 26, nor respond to a Delaforum request for a precise accounting of how much revenue has been lost since fiscal year 2006.

Last updated on April 30, 2009

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