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January 2009

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At the midpoint in the fiscal year a torrent of red ink is flowing across county government ledgers, according to acting chief financial officer Ed Milowicki

The situation is "the worst I've seen" since coming to work as an accountant in the finance department 30 years ago, he told a recent meeting of County Council's finance committee. The Dec. 31 'checkbook report' showed every category of revenue lagging behind budget. The widest variance -- $13.3 million -- was in proceeds from the real estate transfer tax, which ranks second to property tax as a source of income. The total projection for the entire fiscal year, which ends June 30, is that revenue will fall short of the $159.4 million expected when Council enacted the budget ordinance last May.

Through December, $10.7 million in transfer tax, which the county shares with state government, was collected. The full-year projection is now $18.6 million, versus a budgeted $31.9 million. Milowicki warned, however, that that revenue could actually come in as low as $16 million. If the projections hold, the county will dip into budget reserves to the tune of $32 million, reducing the carryover to exactly half of what was in the kitty last July 1. In its other column, the 'checkbook' projects that county government spending in the full fiscal year will be $2.2 million below budget. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Milowicki reported that, if there are no changes in revenue or spending patterns, budget reserves will be all but depleted by the end of fiscal 2010 and the budget shortfall through fiscal 2012 will be $162.8 million.

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County government will use up to $7 million of federal bailout money to buy foreclosed-upon houses from banks and other mortgage lenders, have them fixed up and sell them.

Anne Farley, general manager of the Department of Community Services, told a County Council committee that 31 properties in suburbs between Wilmington and New Castle have been selected for the first round of the 'neighborhood stabilization' effort to begin in March. Legislation to authorize use of money to be provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the autumn, 2008, Economic Recovery Act was introduced into Council on Jan. 27. Earlier in the day, Farley told the committee that several non-profit organizations will be employed to do the renovating.

"Vacant [and] abandoned properties produce neighborhood blight," she said. "We don't intend to hold these properties more than 90 days." Proceeds from selling them will go into a revolving fund to permit including a total of 55 houses in the program. Farley revealed during her presentation that 745 residential properties were sold at sheriff sales during 2008, up 58% from 471 the previous year. The 19802 postal zip code area, which includes north Wilmington and eastern Brandywine Hundred, saw the most sales, 119. There were 1,960 potential foreclosure actions initiated in 2008, compared to 1,430 in 2007, she reported. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Without disclosing details, Farley said her department is working on developing a "foreclosure-prevention" effort which she hopes to roll out in a month or so.

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LEFT ON THE TABLE: County Councilman Penrose Hollins did not bring the proposed ordinance to amend the 'workforce housing' sections of the Unified Development Code to a vote at the Jan. 27 Council meeting. He said he was "not comfortable" doing so with "discussions still going on in the General Assembly" concerning a possible state government-imposed moratorium on accepting new development proposals under those provisions. A county moratorium will expire on Jan. 31. Some residents of southern New Castle County have objected to provisions in the code allowing for greater housing density in those plans. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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CLOCK IS TICKING: Brandywine School District has formally offered to lease the Darley Road Elementary School property to state government and could tentatively decide which of two bidders will get it even before receiving an answer. District lawyer Ellen Cooper told the school board on Jan. 26 that the state by law has 30 days to take up the offer made on Jan. 15 and, if it doesn't, county government gets a 30-day chance. But, she said, the board could decide as soon as its February meeting to accept either the pending Boys & Girls Clubs or Odyssey Charter proposal conditioned on neither government wanting it.

After John Schropp, a teacher and coach at Concord High, warned that the Red Clay district illustrates the "devastating effect charter schools have on a [conventional] school district," board member Joseph Brumskill thanked him and two other attenders for providing "constructive rationale" for opposing Odyssey Charter. But his colleague Cheryl Siskin said previous board discussion about the 'cost' involved "doesn't mean the board does not support Odyssey." Schropp said low participation in Dickinson and McKean High sports and band programs is the result of competition from charter schools for "the better students." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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Some 100 residents of eastern Brandywine Hundred -- mostly civic activists -- told county officials they would prefer a hefty tax increase over significantly diminished public services.

In a straw vote taken by a show of hands after several attenders had expressed willingness to pay more for various things that county government does, virtually everyone at the first of a series of 'listening sessions' in each of the 12 Council districts supported a $10-a-month increase in the property tax for the coming fiscal year. If applied to the $402, which officials say is the current annual levy on the average residential property assessment in unincorporated areas, that would translate as a 30% tax increase. County Council president Paul Clark then challenged the audience to "go out and tell at least 10 friends" about the need.

While it is certain that he will ask for a tax increase, County Executive Christopher Coons told the gathering on Jan. 22 that he is seeking ideas from the public before submitting a proposed fiscal 2010 budget to Council in late March. He then took notes as speakers suggested such measures as imposing a head tax on renters, undertaking a general reassessment of properties, consolidating some libraries and redeveloping under-used commercial properties. There appeared to be general agreement that police protection is a function that should be increased. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

"We are not in a crisis; we are in a severe challenge. This time next year [when budget reserves are depleted] we will be in crisis," Coons told the session.

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ANTI-CRIME TASKFORCE URGED: Council president Paul Clark urged Governor Jack Markel to establish a "joint emergency police taskforce ... to confront the increase in crime" in all parts of New Castle County. In a letter sent on behalf of County Council, he said violence "fueled primarily by the illicit drug trade" is a concern which transcends separate state, county and municipal jurisdictions. The letter, dated Jan. 20, said the taskforce should focus on "attacking the problems of gun violence, school safety and open-air drug dealing." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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The General Assembly "could pretty much undermine our land-use process and make a mockery of our comprehensive plan," according to the longest-serving member of County Council.

Penrose Hollins said a move by the state legislature to impose a six-month moratorium on enforcing the county's workforce-housing ordinance is a blatant intrusion into an area which has long been the province and primary activity of county government. "I'm not going to play politics with Dover," he told a meeting of Council's land use committee. "My enthusiasm for all this is gone." After the meeting on Jan. 20 he said he is undecided whether he will bring a proposed ordinance he is sponsoring to amend the housing law to a vote, as scheduled, when Council next meets in plenary session on Jan. 27.

Hollins drew support from most of his colleagues. There was an apparent consensus that the proposed moratorium was a thinly-veiled attempt to block economic and racial integration of new developments in the southern part of the county. Jea Street said that "members of the legislature in 2009 have the unmitigated gall to think they can determine who lives where." Stephen Lefebvre, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Delaware, and Larry Tarabicos, a lawyer who specializes in representing developers, urged Council not to remove rental units from the scope of the law as Hollins's ordinance would do. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Councilman Timothy Sheldon questioned why the Assembly has zeroed in on the New Castle County housing law, but evidently has no problem with a more stringent one enacted by Sussex County's Council.

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SOLAR POSSIBILITIES: If county government gets a slice of the federal economic stimulus pie it probably will use some of the money to install solar-energy panels on eight public buildings, including the Brandywine Hundred branch library, the Government Center and the new Sweeney public safety building. "If the money is out there and that is the type of projects they want, we can add another layer of energy efficiency," Tracey Surles, general manager of the Department of Special Services, told a Council committee meeting. The panels, she said, could reduce the buildings' energy consumption by 5% to 10%.

In other matters at the meeting on Jan. 20, Surles found herself dodging critical barbs. Committee chairman Timothy Sheldon said the Kirkwood branch library, now under construction, not only is "the ugliest building I've seen" but also has numerous design flaws. Moreover, he said, subcontracts are being divided to make their value small enough to get under the threshold for complying with 'minority'-hiring requirements. The committee agreed to look into a charge by area resident William Bliss that Tri-State Bird Rescue has improperly been given the go-head to build a veterinary facility in the Middle Run Nature Area. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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A DELAWARE SEND-OFF:

Several thousand people gathered  in Tubman-Garrett Park in downtown Wilmington on Jan. 17 to bid President-elect Barack Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden and their families God-speed as they travelled to Washington to begin the new administration at the Jan. 20 Inaugural. They symbolically rode a special Amtrak train from Philadelphia to the capital to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln's trip in 1861. (CLICK HERE to access previous Delaforum article.)

 

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PRESIDENTIAL TRAIN: The special train symbolically carrying President-elect Barack Obama from Philadelphia to Washington will make a 'rolling stop' at the Claymont train station on Jan. 17. The inaugural committee said it will slow to 2 m.p.h. while Obama acknowledges the crowd from its rear platform. The public will be admitted to the station via the pedestrian bridge at the Chapel Avenue and the extension of Governor Printz Boulevard beginning at 9:15 a.m. The station parking lot off Myrtle Avenue will not be accessible to the public. The train is scheduled to pass through at about noon.

Obama and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden will participate in an event beginning at about 1 p.m. in the Tubman-Garrett Park area behind the Wilmington train station. The security checkpoint providing access to the area will be at S. Market Street and Rosa Parks Blvd. The public will be admitted beginning at 9:30 a.m. The inaugural committee has requested that persons attending the event leave a can of food at the parking lot at Barclays Bank on S. West Street or at 5th and Orange Sts. The Obama train trip prior to his inauguration on Jan. 20 is a commemoration of Abraham Lincoln's journey to his inauguration in 1861.

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CONTROLLING GUNS URGED: Spurred by a recent shooting after a basketball game at William Penn High School, County Councilman Jea Street called for mounting a concerted effort using combined police resources at the state, county and city levels to address escalating gun violence, particularly among young people and involving the drug trade. "These guns need to be taken off the street. Whatever it costs, it costs," he said at a meeting of Council's public safety committee on Jan. 13. He warned that the problem will only get worse as the economy continues to decline, resulting in an increase in crime.

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FLYING UP: County government has lost a couple of key people in both its executive and legislative branches to the coming administration of governor-elect Jack Markell. Jeffery Bullock has resigned as the chief administrative officer to become secretary of state. Councilwoman Stephanie McClellan, who represents a district centered on Newark, will be Markell's policy director. Deputy administrative officer Lynne Howard will succeed Bullock in an acting capacity. The county is required to hold -- and pay for -- a special election to fill McClellan's seat for the two years remaining in her term.

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NEW CHARTER REQUIRED: George Chambers, its board president, misspoke when he said that Odyssey Charter School would not need another charter to operate at the site of River Road Elementary. "Odyssey is currently authorized by the Red Clay School District and, as such, must remain within the boundaries of [that] district," according to Valerie Woodruff, state secretary of education. When the current moratorium on granting new charters expires, Odyssey Charter could seek a second charter from the state Department or Education or the Brandywine district. No organization currently holds more than one charter. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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TEACHERS CERTIFIED: Nine teachers in Brandywine district schools have been certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Recognition by the independent non-governmental organization is considered the top credential in the teaching profession. Receiving it were: Amy Elliot, Sarah Foster, Debbie Grandizio, Greta Savage and Susie Whitcraft, of Forwood Elementary; Patty Grimm and Germaine Long, of Darley Road Elementary; Daphne Johnson, of P.S. du Pont Intermediate; and Julie O'Leary, of Harlan Intermediate.

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MEETING IN AFGHANISTAN:

U.S. Army photo, special to Delaforum

Two men with Claymont connections met in Kabul on Jan. 10 during Vice President-elect Joe Biden's visit. Othell 'Butch' Hamlett, a former assistant principal at Claymont Elementary School, who is on extended military leave, is a lieutenant colonel serving a tour of duty at International Security Assistance Force headquarters in the Afghan capital.  Biden, who grew up in Claymont, Biden met with Gen. David D. McKiernan, commander of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan. (See Washington Post article in Delaforum's Pulse)

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If federal money is made available to it after Congress enacts President-elect Barack Obama's economic stimulus package, county government will seek up to an estimated $90.8 million.

That money would finance as many as 36 capital projects which, combined, would provide more than 1,000 jobs. Most, if not all, of those presumably would be with firms contracted to do the work and not additions to the government workforce. Although labled on draft list the administration has prepared as being "created," it is not certain how many would actually be new positions. County Executive Christopher Coons said none of the projects are simply 'make work' ventures, but are "things we would be doing anyway if we had the money." All are designed and 'ready-to-go' as quickly as they are financed, he said.

About three quarters of the money would be spent on rehabilitating and upgrading the county's sanitary sewer system. About half of that would go to projects in Brandywine Hundred. Also included on the list is money for parks, greenway trails and stormwater management. A new emergency medical services facility would be built and existing buildings modified for energy efficiency. Coons pointed out that receipt of federal money will not alleviate the county's fiscal problem because it would all go into sewer- and general-purposes capital budgets which are separately financed, mostly by bonded debt. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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AHEAD OF SCHEDULE:

Construction of the new Lancashire Elementary School building on Naamans Road is on a pace to be finished by the end of 2009, about eight months earlier than the August, 2010, target date. The $14.9 million project also is on budget, according to John Read, who manages the Brandywine district's construction program. After staff and students move into the new structure, possibly during the second half of the 2009-10 academic year, the existing building will be torn down. That and completion of renovations now underway at Springer Middle will leave only construction of a new Brandywood Elementary in Chalfonte where Hanby Middle now stands to complete the district's renovation and modernization program begun in the 1990s. Hanby is to be closed at the end of the current academic year.

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County government is making a list and checking it frequently in hopes that some federal money will be coming its way after Congress approves an Obama stimulus package.

Tracey Surles, general manager of the Department of Special Services, told a County Council committee that the idea is to make sure that specific projects are lined up if and when an allocation for local public works projects is made. Since there is an immediacy to providing job-providing work to turn the economy around, it is assumed that only projects which are at a stage where they can be put out to bid in short order will be considered, she said. "New Castle County is ready to step up with projects that are ready to go," Nicole Majeski, County Executive Christopher Coons's chief of staff, said.

At this point, the wish list "is extremely flexible [because] we don't know what the criteria and process will be," Majeski said.  She indicated that the list was weighted toward sewer projects. It is expected that work would be required to start within something like 90 to 100 days. She said the county intends to vigorously pursue its quest. The administration already has contacted Delaware's congressional delegation and its Washington lobbying firm to present its case. State officials also have been alerted in the likely event the federal largess will be channeled through state governments.

Councilman John Cartier said he hopes the stimulus "will restore the federal-local partnership [to deal with] billions of dollars [worth] of neglected infrastructure." Council president Paul Clark said it also can provide impetus for energy-saving building upgrades.

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AGREEMENT NEAR: The 12-year-long impasse over paying for environmental remediation of land that is now Fox Point State Park is close to being broken -- at least as far as county government's liability is concerned. Tracey Surles, general manager of the Department of Special Services, was ready to announce settlement of the dispute at a County Council committee meeting on Jan. 6. However, she said, "details [of the agreement] fell apart yesterday afternoon." She did not elaborate, but the matter was pulled from the published agenda shortly before the meeting convened.

Part  of the planned park has been open for several years and another portion is being developed for an opening in the spring. The former Penn Central Railroad's successor corporation and Wilmington city and county governments, which owned the land before it was conveyed to state government, are ‘responsible parties’ liable to pay for the  remediation. When the county sold the property to the state for a token $1, it was expected the state would assume any cleanup obligation, "but that was not very well documented," Surles said. "We're trying to work in a cooperative manner to bring [the dispute] to a solution."

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A 'TRULY DAUNTING' TASK: County government's fiscal situation "will become more difficult before it gets better," County Executive Christopher Coons warned as he was inaugurated for a second term. While not providing any details, he said he will propose "a combination of spending cuts, increased efficiency and new revenue" to ward off a projected budget shortfall of $160 million over the next four years. At the extremes, meeting it would require a 50% increase in the property tax or laying off about a third of the county workforce -- neither of which would be an acceptable option, he said.

After taking the oath of office at a brief ceremony hosted by County Council on Jan. 6, Coons delivered a 'state of the county' address detailing accomplishments during his first term and pledging that "correcting our long-term financial challenges remains my primary goal." He said he believes that county residents "value what we do" and called the $402 average residential tax bill "a great deal for the many services this county government provides." He and Council members will soon conduct a series of 12 'listening sessions' to gather comments and suggestions from the public before Coons presents his proposed budget in March. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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BOND SALE: County government sold $107.5 million of general obligation bonds with an interest rate of 4.59% on Jan. 5. The issue includes $17.5 million to refinance existing debt. That, according to acting chief financial officer Ed Milowicki, will save $1,671,000 in debt-service costs. Merrill Lynch, a subsidiary of Bank of America, was the primary underwriter in the negotiated deal. The interest was slightly higher than the 4.23% obtained at a November, 2007, bond sale. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

 

Last updated on January 30, 2009

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