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March 2009

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Renaissance Village is now Darley Green. Donald Robitzer, an official of the Commonwealth Group, said the new name was chosen because it will be "more marketable."

He told the Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee that the former name, derived from the community's renewal movement, was

"awkward and difficult to spell." Felix Darley, a renowned 19thCentury illustrator, lived just north of the 67-acre site. His home, known in his time as the Wren's Nest, still stands. It is owned by the state of Delaware. Robitzer did not make the connection, but Helena Springer Green was the wife of early-20th Century industrialist John Raskob. They lived east of the site on an estate which they called Archmere. Their home is now one of the buildings on the Archmere Academy campus.

Appearing at the committee's meeting on Mar. 25 to secure approval to erect temporary signs to lead prospective buyers to a sales office, Robitzer denied a rumor that the first townhouse structure, now being built, would be the extent of immediate construction. The entire first block of residences, he said, will be completed by the end of the year. He said the development firm is receiving "at least 25 to 30 calls a day" and now has a databank of more than 350 names of people who have

The first townhouse structure is being built.

indicated interest in the locale. Initial units, he said, will be priced in the low-$200,000 range. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

HISTORIC ROUTE: Twenty-six miles of northern Delaware roads have been officially designated as part of a national historic trail under legislation enacted by Congress and soon to be signed into law by President Obama, according to Brandywine Hundred resident Kim Burdick, who is national chairman of the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association. In Delaware, the route extends from where Philadelphia Pike enters the state from Pennsylvania in Claymont, through Wilmington, Stanton and Chistiana to where Old Baltimore Pike passes into Maryland west of Coochs Bridge and Iron Hill.

The entire 685-mile route traces the path that Colonial American and French troops commanded by George Washington and Comte de Rochambeau took from Newport, R.I., through what are now eight states, to Yorktown, Va., in the autumn of 1781 to successfully engage British troops under Charles Cornwallis in the climactic battle of the Revolutionary War. The march "will be finally fully recognized for the seminal role it has played in shaping American history," Burdick said. By highlighting places, sites and structures which figured in that history, the route is expected to promote tourism business along the way.

    

THERE'S A REASON: Brandywine School District is only complying with the law by scheduling a public hearing after the school board approved negotiating a lease with Boys & Girls Clubs to use the Darley Road School property, David Blowman, the district's chief financial officer, said. "The purpose of the public hearing, according to the [Delaware] Code, is to establish whether concerns are raised at the hearing sufficient to prevent the district [from moving] forward with that particular tenant," he told Delaforum. The hearing is scheduled for Apr. 6 in the Claymont Middle School auditorium. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

It's red ink as far as the eye can see for county government even if the proposed 25% property-tax hike is enacted and the equivalent furlough or lay-offs plan materializes.

Acting chief financial officer Ed Milowicki told County Council's finance committee on Mar. 24 that he is now projecting a $93.6 million budget shortfall between now and fiscal year 2014 if there are no further tax increases or service cuts and new revenue sources are not found. Particularly chilling in his forecast was lowering estimated revenue from the real estate transfer tax in the coming fiscal year to $14.9 million. That would follow slicing it to $16.6 million this year. Previous estimates were $18.6 million in both years. Actual revenue from that source in fiscal 2008 was $32 million.

 Milowicki said there has been some pickup in business in the recorder of deeds office, but it has mostly involved refinancing. Cost-cutting measures since the end of calendar 2008 have brought estimated spending this year $8.7 million under budget, he said. Almost half of that is in salaries and employee benefits and a quarter of it comes from spending less for contractual services. Asked by Councilman Robert Weiner how large an increase in the tax rate for next year would be necessary "to make all that red ink go away," Milowicki said something in the range of 35%. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

If you're having trouble grasping what they mean when the President and Congress talk about trillions of dollars, consider that, if you spent $100 a second without a pause,  it would take you 316 years and eight months -- or until autumn, 2325 --  to spend $1 trillion. Going the other way, you would have had to start spending in 1692 -- 40 years before George Washington was born.

    

The Brandywine school board unanimously approved leasing the Darley Road School property to Boys & Girls Clubs and then scheduled an after-the-fact public hearing on the matter.

Purpose for conducting the hearing -- to be held on Apr. 6 in the Claymont Middle School auditorium -- was not clear since all six members who attended the board meeting on Mar. 23 unequivocally expressed their preference for choosing the youth organization over Odyssey Charter School to be the lessee. They formally voted to adopt a motion authorizing superintendent Jim Scanlon to negotiate a lease agreement. Scanlon said the public will be able to "comment about the decision" at the hearing and the board will then "formalize [sic] the decision that is made here tonight."

Board member Ralph Ackerman said closing Darley Road Elementary at the end of this academic year "is adverse to the Claymont community." But, he added, Boys & Girls Clubs "is providing a service to the community and I would like to see it have the opportunity to expand that service." Mark Huxsoll cited the Brandywine district's long-standing opposition to charter schools. "That school is chartered by Red Clay [school district]" and its coming would "create a situation that actually competes with our schools," he said. Board president Debra Heffernan said leasing to Odyssey would be "fiscally irresponsible." [CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

BIG GRANT: Brandywine School District has been selected to receive a $950,000 state grant to incorporate 'green technology' into the Brandywood Elementary School building to be constructed in Chalfonte, superintendent Jim Scanlon announced at the board meeting on Mar. 23. He said the money will finance providing for the use of geothermal- and solar-generated energy. The grant was won in competition with the Appoquinimink, Milford and Smyrna districts. Building renovations manager John Read said the grant will not come from the energy component of the federal economic stimulus legislation.

    

County Council began consideration of the proposed fiscal 2010 budget without knowing what, if any, layoffs of government employees will eventually be included.

With the administration and unions "still at the bargaining table," that information "will not be known until May 18," finance committee co-chairman George Smiley said at the beginning of the first of nine public hearings on the spending plan. A personnel issue that did come up at the session on Mar. 23 was a demand from Councilmen Jea Street and William Tansey for information about how much unused vacation time is being accumulated by county employees and what that obligation will cost when those employees retire. Pensions are based on how much an employee earns during the three highest-pay years.

Chief administrative officer Tracey Surles defended spending $112,000 to hire lobbyists in Washington and Dover, saying that cost was more than recovered by such things as the $1.2 million the Washington firm acquired for the Shellpot sewer project. "It's critical to have knowledgeable lobbyists" helping in the competition for federal financing, Councilman John Cartier said. Yvonne Gordon, head of administrative services, said the county has completed energy audits for 16 if its large buildings which, she said, should put it in good stead to receive federal economic stimulus money. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Gordon also said departments have been directed to review all vendor and service-provider contracts "to find opportunities to reduce costs" either with new terms or by doing some of the things they cover 'in house'.

    

PROJECTS LISTED: County government is going to use $2.3 million of federal stimulus money it is getting to construct parts of greenways linking New Castle and the Christina Riverfront and in the Mill Creek area. Mike Svaby, the new acting general manager of the Department of Special Services, told a County Council committee on Mar. 17 that an undetermined amount will go to either convert some of the 269 county vehicles with diesel-fueled motors to run on gasoline or to replace them. Svaby spoke in general terms and did not respond to a Delaforum request to provide details.

Nicole Majeski, County Executive Christopher Coons's chief of staff, said the county also is looking for a $1.6 million police grant, $978,000 for homelessness reduction and a $639,000 community development block grant. Still in prospect, Coons said in his budget address, is the possibility of using the stimulus law to finance installation of energy-saving solar panels on large county buildings. Svaby said the county is ineligible to get any money for existing sanitary sewer projects -- its most expensive capital program -- because the ratio of sewer fees to median property value is too low. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

SETTLEMENT: When it next meets on Mar. 24 County Council will likely approve spending $490,000 to end a dispute that has been hanging fire since it donated land for what is now Fox Point State Park some 15 years ago. In return for agreeing to a consent decree penalizing it for environmental damage to the Delaware River, county government will be absolved from its alleged $6 million obligation to help pay for the cleanup of the site. The county reportedly was told it would be relieved of any liability for the site in return for giving it as a gift to the state but, evidently, no one at the time bothered to get that agreement in writing.

    

Two-and-a-half years after promising that he was "ready for a long-term relationship" with the Brandywine School District, superintendent Jim Scanlon said he is now ready to move on.

In an e-mailed announcement -- which caught the public and apparently most everyone else involved with the district by surprise -- Scanlon revealed that he is the sole remaining candidate to become superintendent of the West Chester (Pa.) Area School District. That district's school board is expected to vote to fill a superintendency vacancy on Apr. 27. Scanlon would take office on July 1. Scanlon was hired in August, 2006, to succeed Bruce Harter, who left to take a job in California, through a closed-to-the-public selection process organized by a search firm. Scanlon took office that October.

The e-mail sent on Mar. 16 said Scanlon wants to lead a school system in Pennsylvania "where public school districts have more flexibility and local control over how they operate." Before coming to Brandywine, Scanlon was superintendent in the Quakertown (Pa.) Community School District. His announcement took a broad swipe at the state-centered administration of public education in Delaware. "Our [sic] new legislative committee is working with the governor and secretary of education to change that, but I suspect it will be years before school districts in Delaware see significant change," the announcement said. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

GAP GROWS: State government is now looking at a $43.7 million budget shortfall this fiscal year and an approximately $751 million gap in the coming one, which begins July 1, according to Ann Visalli, director of the state budget office. The shortfalls are deeper than the $56 million and $606 million, respectively, that have been talked about up until now. Delaware Economic & Financial Advisory Council on Mar. 16 approved, with virtually no discussion, previously reported revenue and spending estimates by its committees. They show that the national recession is taking an increasingly heavy toll on state finances. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

The ailing real estate market -- by any measure the life blood of county government's finances -- continues to get sicker and shows no sign of a meaningful recovery.

Ed Milowicki, acting chief financial officer, told the initial meeting of the county's financial advisory council that he is about to further reduce the estimate of proceeds from the real estate transfer tax this year by $2 million. It's now expected to provide $16.6 million, about 47% less than the  $31.9 million expected when the budget was approved last May. He told the panel on Mar. 12 that there has been a 36% drop in the number of transactions involving properties valued at under $500,000 -- essentially the residential market -- since a year ago and that selling prices are averaging 6% below 2008 levels.

Quoting data compiled by the New Castle County Board of Realtors, a trade group, Milowicki said there is a nine-to-12-month backlog of listed but unsold houses. A three-to-six-month inventory is normal. What activity there is is largely first-time homebuyers. That's not necessarily good news because those buyers are exempted by law from paying the transfer tax. There is virtually no activity in the commercial and industrial segments of the business. "Hopefully, we're close to the bottom," Milowicki said, but added that "even if you begin to see an increase in [the number of] sales, you won't see an increase in value." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Although the amounts are not statistically significant, he said a drop in fees collected by the recorder of deeds has been about offset by an increase in fees the sheriff collects for conducting foreclosure auctions.

    

LAYOFFS TO BE PROPOSED: When County Executive Christopher Coons presents his  fiscal 2010 budget request to County Council on Mar. 17, it most likely will include a "reduction of salaried positions." Coons's spokesman C.R. McLeod told Delaforum that the Mar. 10 'absolute deadline' has arrived without a labor agreement related to Coons's proposal to institute 24 unpaid 'holidays' -- equivalent to about a 10% pay cut -- to preserve jobs. McLeod said, however, that "all options continue to be discussed" and pointed out that the budget ordinance can be amended before being enacted by the end of May. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

REMATCH: Aletha Ramseur and Cheryl Siskin will go at it again in the Brandywine school board election on May 12. This time it is Ramseur who is challenging Siskin. It was the other way around in 2008 when Siskin unseated Ramseur by a 56%-44% in a contest that drew a sparse turnout. Ramseur had been appointed by the  board after Nancy Doorey resigned. State law provides that appointees stand at the next regularly scheduled election to fill out an unexpired term. Doorey's term will expire on June 30. No other candidates filed before the Mar. 6 deadline to run for the only seat that opens up this year. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

AT LAST:

After several delays, construction of the first block of Renaissance Village townhouses has begun on the Darley Road side of the 67-acre property in Claymont. The developer The  first sample units reportedly will be ready to show prospective purchasers by June. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on March 27, 2009

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