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July 2009

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County Council ratified the police pay deal, but learned that federal money will not be forthcoming to mitigate some of the union's concessions and heard a double-standards charge from the cops' public safety colleagues.

So sure were officials that they would get the law-enforcement grant that Council president Paul Clark introduced an ordinance to cut 13 officers from the payroll with the intention to rehire them with federal stimulus money. Wilmington and eight other municipalities did get grants, but the county force was turned down because of a relatively low crime rate in its jurisdiction. "It is difficult to understand how our success in fighting crime could be viewed as a negative," a press statement issued by County Executive Christopher Coons's office said. Because the police deal did not involve any pay cuts, Council at its session on July 28 had only to approve a simple resolution authorizing Coons to sign the contract. It did so unanimously. Clark's ordinance apparently is moot.

Kenny Dunn, president of the union which represents paramedics and 9-1-1 call center operators, told Council that the Coons administration's willingness to engage in painstaking negotiations with the police union was in sharp contrast to its 'take-it-or-leave' attitude toward his organization. When it, like the police union, rejected a proposed 5% pay cut, the administration laid off nine paramedics. "We were willing to meet to discuss givebacks," Dunn said. The administration refused "to negotiate a contract in good faith," Lorraine Williams said. As Delaforum previously reported, the police union eventually agreed to limits on overtime, court standby and holiday premium pay in exchange for a no-layoffs pledge. The contract calls for using federal grants to raise the limits during fiscal 2011. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

'RECOVERY ZONE' APPROVED: When county officials gerrymandered the proposed 'recovery zone' so it would include a sanitary-sewer project in the Hockessin area, three County Council members bailed from the bandwagon and voted on July 28 against establishing the zone. Penrose Hollins said that and including other areas of the county not severely impacted by the recession was "trying to dodge what the law was written for." As previously reported, projects, both public and private, in the 'recovery zone' will be eligible under federal stimulus legislation for bond financing on more favorable terms that otherwise would be the case. "In my view, this is not a good-faith effort," Jea Street said, referring to inclusion of areas that do not meet the criteria for federal assistance.

William Tansey, who represents the Hockessin area, noted that it "has been portrayed as one of the wealthiest areas in the country." Council president Paul Clark, however, argued that, although the sewer project would be located in an upscale area, "that's not saying that a guy [living in] Hockessin is going to be the one who puts the pipe in." Lisa Diller, who sponsored the resolution establishing the 'recovery zone', said the entire county could have been included because the jobs-creation and economic stimulation the bonds are expected to generate would benefit all areas adversely affected by the recession. Karl Kalbacher, director of redevelopment, said Council will have an opportunity to pass on the appropriateness of specific projects as they are brought forth. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

PROPOSAL REJECTED: Unions which represents Brandywine district teachers and other employees have turned down a proposed contract modification to implement the state-mandate to take five days off without pay to effect the equivalent of a 2.5% pay cut. But the school board and district administration will not disclose what the proposal was. It apparently came out of a closed-door executive session of the board. "We had expected that the unions would concur with the modifications. However, that did not happen as we expected," acting superintendent Andy Brandenberger told Delaforum. The law imposing the payless 'holidays' specified that union concurrence is required before a plan can be submitted. It is not clear what the next step will be. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

CODE ENFORCEMENT: Fines and non-payment penalties under the county's year-old 'instant ticketing' program for dealing with violations of the property-maintenance code have amounted to just over $1 million, a County Council committee was told on July 21. Department of Land Use assistant general manager James Smith reported that 7,368 tickets covering 12,695 violations were issued between July 1, 2008, when the program was started, and July 17, 2009. However, only about a fourth of the money has actually been collected, he said. Slightly less than half the obligations, amounting to at least $500 each, will be included in this fiscal year's property-tax bills, which are about to be sent out. Since April, Smith said, tax liens have been filed on properties with obligations of $1,000 or more.

    

'SMART GROWTH' MEASURE ENDORSED: The County Planning Board and Department of Land Use recommended County Council approval of an ordinance to establish a zoning category incorporating the principles of so-called 'smart growth'. Although sponsored by Councilmen John Cartier and Robert Weiner, who represent Brandywine Hundred districts, the measure initially would apply only to the already-designated 'growth area' south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. Land use general manager David Culver told the Planning Board meeting on July 21 that the intent was "to see how it works before we roll it out countywide." In already developed areas it could be used to incorporate residential 'infill' around underused commercially-zoned area, he said.

The recommendation to approve the ordinance was conditioned on Council's accepting a substitute to the pending measure that would encourage developers to include moderate-priced housing in a mix of commercial and residential buildings. "Smart growth' is defined as using higher development density to promote traditional town-like arrangements by clustering a variety of businesses and service establishments within walking range of homes. The department recommendation -- which was read to the board at the meeting but copies of which were withheld from the public pending being put into final form -- said the ordinance, which the department drafted, will be a voluntary "alternative to sprawl development."

    

RECOVERY ZONE:

County Council will designate a large portion of the county -- the darker shaded area on the map -- as a recovery zone. That will enable county government to receive authorization, under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, to sell two kinds of bonds. Nicole Majeski, chief of staff to County Executive Christopher Coons, told Council's finance committee on July 21 that the authorization will include $50.9 million of municipal bonds to help finance government capital projects and $76 million in facility bonds to support private ventures within the zone. Although those municipal bonds will be taxable, the federal government will subsidize 45% of required interest payments which will result in a lower cost of servicing the debt than would occur with the sale of conventional municipal bonds, she said. With the facility bonds, the developer will have lower borrowing costs because the bonds will be tax-exempt, a status which commands a lower interest rate.  According to Karl Kalbacher, director of redevelopment, the zone was determined by applying a combination of several economic measures -- such as unemployment rate, home foreclosures and the like -- to census tracts. Doing that rather than simply designating the entire county as a recovery zone was intended to make the bid for federal stimulus aid more credible, he said.

    

CRIME DOWN: New Castle County police experienced an 8.6% drop in reported crime during the first six months of this year compared to last, chief Rick Gregory recently told County Council's public safety committee. Violent crimes of all kinds were down 5% and property crime declined 4.6%. He did not go into detail, but partial data provided later at Delaforum's request indicated there were 8,098 reports that a crime had been committed, down from 8,860 in the same months of 2008. There were increases in assaults, 2.6%, and burglaries, 1.4%, but robbery decreased 15% and vehicle theft 21%. Lieutenant Fred Weldin told the committee that there has been a 25% decline in the number of false alarms since a law imposing penalties for repeat violations was enacted a year ago.

    

MOVING OUT:

Movers (right) load cartons of classroom supplies being sent to P.S. du Pont Middle school from Hanby Middle as the process of clearing the building in Chalfonte continues.  Empty corridors and nearly empty classrooms (below) testify to the fact that the building's days are numbered. The structure, which dates to the 1960s, will be torn down later this year to make room for a new one to house Brandywood Elementary and the Bush Early Learning Center. (CLICK THERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

The Brandywine school board called a "special action meeting" to deal with the state-mandated five-day leave plan and promptly went behind closed doors to do it.

Board president Debra Heffernan did not even give the usual perfunctory explanation as the board, for the second consecutive time, recessed an announced public meeting to go into an executive session from which the public was barred. Acting superintendent Andy Brandenberger confirmed that the law requiring state employees to take five days off without pay to effect the equivalent of a 2.5% pay cut was to be the topic of the session. He said the district would issue a public statement later in the week. He, district lawyer Ellen Cooper, financial officer David Blowman and other administrators joined the board. Because the session on July 13 was held in a different part of the district administration building, it was not possible to tell if any teachers' union officials or other employees also attended.

The leave provision, inserted as a legislative rider into the annual grants budget, specifically addresses public school teachers, requiring that the unpaid 'holidays' not take away from instructional time. School districts are required to come up with plans "in concurrence with certified [collective] bargaining representatives," but does not set a due-date, other than to say the plans must be approved at the state level during the coming 2009-10 academic year. The law refers to the state-financed portion of school employees' pay. It is at least theoretically possible that boards could divert local money to make up the difference. Since July 1 Brandywine has been operating under a preliminary budget and Blowman has said that he intends to propose that it be significantly modified before a final version is adopted. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

The state's open meeting law permits public bodies to hold executive sessions to discuss personnel matters in which an individual's qualifications are at issue and litigation and negotiation strategies if public disclosure would jeopardize them.

    

POLICE UNION VOTING: New Castle County police officers are voting this week on whether to ratify a tentative contract negotiated by the Coons administration and their union. Administration spokesman C.R. McLeod refused to make public any of the terms of the agreement pending results of the vote. If it is accepted by a majority of the members of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 who vote, that will virtually complete county government's salary-reduction arrangements with its approximately 1,450 employees. County Executive Christopher Coons sought pay cuts to balance the 25% property-tax rate increase which he requested and County Council recently enacted. Council almost certainly will approve any new salary schedule or other measure necessary to implement the police contract. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

MOVING IN:

A Bayshore Transportation Systems crew uses an old-fashioned 'bucket brigade' to transport cartons of classroom supplies to the upper level of Brandywood Elementary School. The boxes were packed by teachers being transferred from other schools as well as those moving to different classrooms in the same building. Joe Ellis, Bayshore's project manager for the moving operation required to effect the Brandywine district's realignment, said handling stairs this way is considerably less fatiguing on workers. As it happens, most of college students hired by the company as temporary summer employees and assigned to the Brandywine move are graduates of the district's high schools. All Brandywine district elementary schools will house kindergarten through fifth grade when they reopen in August. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

The Brandywine school board took the first steps toward replacing the Brandywood Elementary building and relocating the district's administrative offices to the Mount Pleasant Elementary building.

At its meeting on June 29, the board authorized negotiation of a contract with Bancroft Construction Co. to be construction manager for the Brandywood project. That will begin in August with asbestos abatement at the just-closed Hanby Middle building. Its demolition is scheduled to begin in November and be completed by February, 2010. A new Brandywood school will then be built on the Hanby site in Chalfonte. About $1 million of the $2.67 million originally authorized to plan renovation of Hanby has been diverted to pay for its removal. Not having to raise the remaining $21.9 million authorized to renovate Hanby, coupled with lower interest rate on bonds, will 'save' district taxpayers $2.75 million in spending to service bonded debt, according to chief financial officer David Blowman.

Also approved was a plan to convert unused space in the Mount Pleasant building, near Bellefonte, into offices. The district will not renew the lease with Edgemoor Community Center on 14,000 square feet of the area in the building which it presently occupies to round out a 38,000 square foot area for the offices and storage space. Earmarked for the project is $3.1 million, about half of what the district estimates it would cost to bring the present headquarters in Radnor Green up to snuff. If the Mount Pleasant building can't accommodate the entire administrative staff, the unoccupied science wing at Claymont Elementary will be used. Those projects will leave only replacing of the district bus depot in northeast Wilmington to complete the third and final phase of the district's 'modernization' program.

The meeting was the final one for superintendent Jim Scanlon, who has resigned, effective June 30, to become superintendent of the West Chester (Pa.) Area School District. Debra Heffernan was re-elected president of the school board and Olivia Johnson-Harris its vice president.

    

BUDGET APPROVED: The Brandywine school board, as expected, approved a $145.8 million preliminary operating budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, along with a 2% property-tax increase to partly pay for it. The budget is subject to one or more revisions before a final version is adopted in November or December. Before the unanimous vote, which followed minimal discussion, at the June 29 meeting, the board went behind closed doors for 80 minutes. It is not known whether there was any relationship in that sequence. Board president Debra Heffernan gave only a perfunctory explanation for the unusual step of recessing the public meeting in the midst of its agenda and said nothing about what went on during the executive session after the board returned. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on July 29, 2009

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