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August 2009

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UNITS ARE SELLING: Eleven of the first 14 units being built in Darley Green have been spoken for, according to Brett Saddler, executive director of Claymont Renaissance Development Corp. Although none of the properties have yet gone to settlement, prospective owners have signed binding contracts and put up significant deposits, he told a meeting of the Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee on Aug. 26. "The problem now is how [is the developer] going to keep up with demand," Saddler said. With additional features included, the average sale price was $245,000, he said. Although some area residents have questioned whether the townhouse structures are "too close" to Darley Road, he said their positioning conforms to the long-standing conceptual development plan. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

It appears as if New Castle County government's falling economic barometer may be starting to inch up. The county's top financial guru cautioned, however, that that doesn't signal an end -- let alone a quick one -- to its budget woes.

Prefacing his remarks with a reminder that the county recently ended a fiscal year which saw what was, by far, its deepest-ever operating deficit, Ed Melowicki, acting chief financial officer, presented County Council's finance committee with charts which indicated the residential side of the real estate market may have turned around in the second calendar quarter and that the trend appears to be continuing. As a result, "I think we've hit bottom on the real estate transfer tax, but recovery is going to be slow," he said at the committee's meeting on Aug. 25. The tax, collected when real property changes hands, is the second largest source of county revenue. Its unmitigated steep decline during the past year took much of the blame for county officials' angst as the flood of red ink grew.

The number of transactions climbed from 297 in April to 375 in May, 421 in June and 482 in July. Melowicki said the majority of those were in the $200,000-to-$250,000 price range. Also, he said, 40% of the 2,300 transactions during the first seven months of 2009  involved first-time home buyers who are exempt by state law from paying the county's share of the tax -- but not the state's share -- regardless of the selling price. Activity on the commercial side of the market remains stagnant, he said. The fiscal 2009 operating deficit, including capital spending charged to the general fund, totaled $25.1 million, almost double the $13.6 million originally budgeted. With 'only' a $6.7 million deficit budgeted for the current fiscal year , Milowicki said "it's too early [in the year] to tell how we're doing." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

SLIGHT IMPROVEMENT: County government finished its fiscal year on June 30 in slightly better financial condition than it had expected, but County Executive Christopher Coons said it isn't any time to slacken efforts "to reduce our costs and operate as efficiently as possible." The most recent monthly financial report, based on data through June, posted on the county website on Aug. 20 showed an operating deficit of $25.1 million, down from $27.9 million projected a month earlier. An increase in revenue of $3.3 million was partly offset by $500,000 higher spending. The county is still projecting a $6.9 million deficit for the current year, but has lowed the projected combined shortfalls through fiscal 2014 from $88.2 million to $76.3 million.

A publicity statement issued by Coons's office attributed the improvements to "cost-saving actions and initiatives the county has taken to address its ongoing financial challenges." It added, however, that because of expected annual budget shortfalls "we must continue to be vigilant in shrinking the costs of government." Noting that a fiscal 2009 shortfall of $34 million and a $40 million fiscal 2010 deficit were projected last January, the statement pointed to several cost-cutting measures taken since then to achieve the reductions. Principal among them were 5% pay cuts taken by county workers other than public safety personnel. With the 25% increase in the rate for this year, property tax is expected to take in $106.4 million up from $84.4 million collected last year. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

DARLEY DEAL PROCEEDING: Brandywine School District is continuing negotiations looking to lease the Darley Road School site to Boys & Girls Clubs of Claymont although the legality of the Brandywine school board's decision to reject a bid by Odyssey Charter School to obtain use of the property apparently has not been determined. "If we arrive at terms with the Boy & Girls Club, they will get possession," Andy Brandenberger, Brandywine's acting superintendent, told Delaforum. Brandenberger said he understands that there is to be a hearing or other proceeding before the state Board of Education, but added that it "now is taking some time getting all the documentation together to forward to the state board."

Odyssey claims that as a public school it has a right to the property under state law. That point was raised at a public hearing on the issue -- held, oddly enough, after the Brandywine board made its decision -- but was not referred to when the board later 'reaffirmed' that decision. "Since the Brandywine School District seems to have taken an opposing position to charter schools and in particular have gone on record that they will not engage in good faith lease negotiations under any circumstances with Odyssey ... we have requested that the state Board of Education intervene in this matter," George Chambers, president of the Odyssey board, said in reply to a Delaforum inquiry. Ron Gough, public relations spokesman for the state board, would not disclose what the next steps at that level will be. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

RESERVOIR PROJECTS COMPLETED: The park adjacent to the underground storage tank which has replaced the Cool Spring   reservoir on Franklin Street in Wilmington has been opened without fanfare to the public. The $23.2 million combined tank and park projects took 26 months to complete. Still to be done is a remake of the original Cool Spring Park east of the reservoir site. The buried tank, which holds approximately 10 million gallons of water -- a two-day supply -- was built as a security measure to replace the open reservoir, which dated back to 1875. It and Porter Reservoir on Concord Pike just outside the city provide principal storage for Wilmington's drinking-water. The Rodney Street reservoir, which also is an underground tank, is not currently being used.

The water feature in the new Cool Spring Reservoir Plaza is not drinking water although water from the adjacent reservoir can feed it if necessary. Water in the pond is circulated through the fountain in the center and two small waterfalls. It is surrounded by a walking path. There are no current plans to use the overlook as a venue for public events although a city official said that may change depending on requests from the surrounding neighborhood.

The business end of the projects is a meadow-like area covering an underground water-storage tank at what used to be the southern half of the open reservoir. The tank, financed by city government through low-interest state loans, is intended to make the drinking-water supply more secure. The open reservoir served for nearly 115 years, guarded during much of that time only by a sign advising passersby that it contained drinking water and requesting that they not "throw anything in [sic] it." In later years, a mesh fence provided some additional protection.

    

Some members of County Council returned a total of $22,151, or 11.4% of the $195,000 budgeted for grants to non-profit organizations during fiscal 2009, but neither Brandywine Hundred councilman was included in that group.

John Cartier and Robert Weiner both spent the entire $15,000 each Council member was allotted for charitable giving. Penrose Hollins, who represents north Wilmington, ended the year on June 30 with $570 left in his account and William Tansey, who represents eastern Christiana Hundred, had $200 in his. Unallocated money automatically reverts to the county treasury. George Smiley led the way when he stopped sponsoring grants last December in response to the county's fiscal plight. Smiley, who co-chairs Council's finance committee with Tansey, had $7,700 left in his account. David Tackett came close to matching Smiley's gesture, returning $7,664. Others who gave back some of their allotments were: Paul Clark, $2,362; Jea Street, $1,950; Joseph Reda, $1,710 and William Powers, $5.

Organizations apply to individual Council members for grants for specific purposes, but Council as a whole must approve by majority vote giving them the money. No request which met established criteria was turned down during the past fiscal year. Weiner gave $2,500, the maximum permitted for any organization, to Indo-American Association of Delaware, Brandywine High School Band Boosters, Brandywine High School Baseball Boosters and Brandywine High School's 50th anniversary committee. Hollins gave $2,500 to Wilmington Enterprise Committee and 1212 Corporation. Tansey gave the top amount to Hockessin Planning Partnership. Cartier did not sponsor any $2,500 grants. Council has no money budgeted for grants during the current fiscal year. (CLICK HERE for a complete list of New Castle County Council grants.)

    

INTERVIEWS TO BEGIN: The Brandywine school board has scheduled a closed-to-the-public meeting on Aug. 17 to interview a candidate for the district's vacant superintendency. Board president Debra Heffernan told Delaforum that nine persons applied for the job, but did not say how many have been designated as finalists. A University of Delaware consultant initially screens the applicants. The posted notice of the Aug. 17 meeting, however, uses the singular in referring to "discussion of an individual citizen's qualifications." State law permits public agencies to consider job performance and qualifications in executive session. Replying to a Delaforum e-mail, Heffernan declined to say how many applications were received from persons working for the district or in Delaware. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

DARLEY DECISION APPEALED: Odyssey Charter School reportedly has asked the Delaware Department of Education to overturn the decision by the Brandywine school board to lease the Darley Road school site to Claymont Boys & Girls Clubs. Odyssey claims that, as a public school, it is a public agency and therefore has priority to obtain the vacated property. According to an article published by Community News, an outside lawyer hired by Brandywine disputed that contention at a recent board meeting. Odyssey's principal did not return Delaforum telephone calls seeking information and comment and the status of Brandywine's lease negotiations with Boys & Girls Clubs could not be immediately determined. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on August 27, 2009

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