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June 2009

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BACK-DOOR APPROACH CHARGED:  County Councilman Robert Weiner said that the Stoltz realty firm and its lawyer, Pam Scott, are trying to "end-run" a requirement that the firm help finance highway improvements related to pending large development projects. According to an e.mail he distributed on June 27, Stoltz is lobbying the Markell administration and the General Assembly for 'epilogue language' in the fiscal 2010 state capital budget to effect a policy change so that "traffic analyses should be regional in scope rather than project specific." Budget epilogues are the state equivalent of the controversial process of inserting provisions favorable to particular interests into federal appropriations legislation without their having been vetted in public prior to enactment of those laws.

In his e.mail Weiner included a letter to state officials from Mark Chura, of Citizens for Responsible Growth in New Castle County, an ad-hoc coalition of civic activists and associations, which said Stoltz wants to "relax or significantly alter the rules and requirements associated with making private developers pay for the impacts [sic] that their new development places on the Delaware taxpayers' infrastructure." Chura argued that any such changes "must be accomplished under the light of a well-publicized public hearing process." Stoltz is seeking New Castle County government approval of major projects at the former Du Pont Co. Barley Mill complex and in Greenville and Brandywine Hundred.

    

RUMOR SQUELCHED: David Blowman, chief financial officer of the Brandywine School District, categorically denied that the district intends to end its $1-a-year arrangement with Claymont Community Center in favor of charging it market-rate rent to use the former Claymont High building on Green Street. He said there "is absolutely no basis" for a statement to that effect made, without attribution, at the June 24 public meeting of the Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee. During so, it was said, would jeopardize the existence of the community center. Blowman said it's possible that the rumor resulted from confusion about the fact that the district is negotiating a lease with Boys & Girls Clubs, now a community center tenant, to occupy the just-closed Darley Road school site.

    

When it next meets the Brandywine School District Board of Education is all but certain to vote a 2% increase in the property-tax rate and accept a $145.8 million preliminary operating budget for the coming fiscal year.

Chief financial officer David Blowman told the board's financial advisory committee -- which agreed at a meeting on June 25 to recommend those decisions at the board's June 29 public meeting -- that, thanks to closure of Hanby Middle School and lower interest rates, the new tax  rate will be about 7 lower than what had previously been expected. The recommended levy is $1.8215 for each $100 of assessed property value, up from the current $1.7785. Blowman attributed most of the increase to the need to boost the tuition component of the rate by 4 to cover special-education costs. He said both the extent of services needed and the number of children needing them have gone up. That has been partly offset by a decrease in the number of expensive private placements.

As it did last year, the board will tentatively schedule a special meeting in early July in the event a change in the tax rate is necessary as a result of the state legislature's final decisions regarding the state budget. Blowman said it appears now that the only change that might be required would be to increase the minor capital spending component by up to 1. On the other hand, he said uncertainties about the state budget appear to make it "extremely likely" that changes "of a significant magnitude" will have to be made to the preliminary budget -- which is less than 1% higher than the current one -- before it becomes final later in the calendar year. The new tax rate takes the operations component to the limit authorized at the 2007 referendum. That could portend a tax referendum in spring, 2010.

Blowman said a contracted 4% increase in the district portion of teachers' salaries, which kicks in July 1, will offset a cut in the state portion at the level now considered likely. The budget projects district-wide enrollment and resultant teacher and staff authorizations to be virtually unchanged in the coming academic year.

    

As County Council prepared to enact a package of ordinances to implement 5% pay cuts for most government employees, it was told a "tentative agreement" has been reached with the last holdout union, which represents police officers.

Although chief administrative officer Tracey Surles said "we're not quite at a place where we can go into a lot of detail," there was a strong hint at a meeting of Council's finance committee on June 23 that federal stimulus money might be used to avoid or minimize pay cuts or lay-offs affecting the county police force. Surles acknowledged that a $1.6 million stimulus grant coming from the U.S. Department of Justice could be used to pay cops. And Council president Paul Clark remarked that the grant "gives you the freedom to negotiate." The ordinance accepting the grant -- which Council later approved unanimously at its plenary session --  says only that the money will be used "to fund public safety-related initiatives and equipment as needed."

The nine ordinances which Council approved establish new pay schedules for the fiscal year which begins July 1. The ordinances specify that the new schedules will be in force for just the one year. Council presumably will have to act next year to extend them or establish new ones. Before the unanimous vote on the package, George Smiley congratulated county employees for agreeing "either through collective bargaining or otherwise" to help meet the county's budget crunch. John Cartier called the vote "a tough moment, but a proud moment" and Penrose Hollins said accepting the cuts was "not a light thing and we shouldn't take it for granted." Clark noted that all elected officials, whose salaries are set by state law, "have voluntarily agreed to 5% rollbacks." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

LIBRARY SCHEDULES: Sunday hours will be restored at the larger branches of the county library system in September. They will be closed instead on Thursdays or Fridays. Sunday closures implemented in January were the first significant cut-back of county services and drew considerable public complaint. Anne Farley, general manager of the Department of Community Services, presented a tentative schedule of library hours to a County Council committee on June 23. Subject to some modification before Sept. 8, it provides that the Brandywine Hundred and Newark branches will operate 55 hours a week. Hockessin, Woodlawn, Bear and Kirkwood Highway will be open 51 hours a week. Claymont, Elsmere, Garfield Park and Appoquinimink will operate for 40 hours and be closed on two days.

    

Some County Council members questioned why county government has agreed to pay to maintain a 'greenway' between Christina Riverfront in Wilmington and New Castle which state government will construct using federal stimulus money.

"That's $10,000 [annually] that could be spent somewhere else," Councilman William Tansey said during a briefing on the project at a committee meeting on June 16. Council President Paul Clark asked why Delaware Greenways did not have responsibility for maintaining such paths. Jonathan Husband, of the Department of Special Services, said the private organization does not have financial resources to do so. County government, he said, has a long-standing plan to cooperate with the organization to provide a 'greenways' network. He said also that the new path will provide most, but not all, of the long-sought 'pedestrian-friendly' Wilmington-New Castle link.

Council will be asked to approve a resolution authorizing a 25-year lease of the 3.8 mile path that will replace a dirt-and-stone trail along an abandoned railroad right-of-way which Delaware Department of Transportation owns. The project will be entirely financed by $1.6 million of stimulus money which the county initially sought but the state ended up getting. "They didn't come to us; we went to them," he said, explaining how the lease deal was arranged. Husband said DelDOT will put the project out to bid soon. Construction, he said, will employ between nine and 15 workers. Councilman George Smiley, who is sponsoring the resolution, said "a countless number of individuals and families" now regularly walk the existing unimproved trail.

    

BIG MOVE BEGINS: The Brandywine Shuffle -- a precisely choreographed realignment of district schools to implement reconfiguration -- got underway on June 16. Professional movers and district custodians came into all the affected buildings and began stacking cartons of classroom material teachers had packed in designated assembly points. When that is accomplished, the school will receive what Barbara Meredith, director of support services said will be "the most thorough cleaning ever -- made possible by the absence of clutter." The boxes will then be redistributed

Eric Michels and Joseph Rosenberg, employees of Bayshore Transportation Systems, stack cartons in the Carrcroft Elementary School gymnasium. Meanwhile, Barbara Meredith checks out a set of about 100 boxes which one teacher had prepared prior to the move. Meredith said that was typical of the quantity of material that

will follow each teacher throughout the district. Only district-owned curriculum-related material is included in the move. When teachers return to their new rooms in August, they will find the same pile of boxes waiting there to be unpacked. Teachers also prepared diagrams that will guide movers in arranging furniture.

to classrooms in other buildings to which the teachers have been assigned. Or, in some cases, they will go to other rooms in the same building. When teachers return in August they will have about a week to unpack and set up their classrooms in time for opening of the new academic year. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

County Council's finance committee will delve into the underlying rationale for various government functions on a continuing basis long before budget time rolls around next year.

No sooner did cochairman George Smiley announce that future meeting agendas will allot time for 'open and frank discussion' of possible elimination of, changes to or initiating various activities and services, than members went at it with gusto. Several members have complained that dealing substantively with fundamentals of the range of county functions is impossible in the context of budget hearings. "We can't wait until the 11th hour when the county executive releases his budget" to pass judgment on whether financing a given program is justified or desired, Penrose Hollins said.

Coincidently, the Police Athletic League had been scheduled to make an informational presentation to the public safety committee at the subsequent public safety committee meeting on June 9. Director Jim Riggs said he had come to clear up rumors that reduced financing for the coming fiscal year indicates that "the county is going to pull out of Pal." That sparked debate when William Tansey questioned government sponsorship of the nonprofit agency and Jea Street defended the organization as vital in providing youth with wholesome activity and nurturing respect for law enforcement.

    

MORE DETAILS: Proposed ordinances introduced into County Council on June 9 to implement 5% pay cuts for the county workforce specify that the salary schedules they authorize apply only to the coming fiscal year. Although chief administrative officer Tracey Surles told Council's finance committee that it is intended that the rates revert to present levels on June 30, 2010,  nothing in the package of legislation speaks to that point. She also said that employees who give notice before July 1 of intent to retire at any time during fiscal 2010 will have his or her pension calculated on what they would have earned without a pay cut.

    

GIVEBACKS: Members of County Council all have agreed to donate 5% of their salaries to county government's general fund or the nonprofit organization which funnels donations to various county projects, according to Council president Paul Clark. That is the equivalent of the pay cuts most county employees are taking in the coming fiscal year. Council membership is a parttime job. The president makes $44,754 a year and members are paid $40,866. Those amounts are set by law and members are barred from giving themselves raises or, apparently, cutting their salaries.

Last updated on June 28, 2009

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