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December 2009

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BARLEY MILL PLAN FILED: County Councilman Robert Weiner accused Stoltz Reality of reneging on an agreement to work with community interests and "scale down" the scope of its plan to replace the former Du Pont Co. Barley Mill Plaza office complex with a mixed commercial and residential development. Weiner said the Bala Cynwyd, Pa.-based firm submitted an unrevised major subdivision plan on Dec. 18, the day before previous approval of its exploratory plan would have expired. In September, Stoltz requested a 90-day deadline extension "due to the length of time required to revise the plan in accordance with an agreeable compromise for the site." Weiner said none of the provisions of a compromise plan offered by objectors were in the December filing.

Weiner described the project as "the largest in the history of Delaware" adding that "some of the buildings in the Stoltz plan are 10, 11 and 12 stories tall." Although the property is appropriately zoned and the project could proceed once it is determined to be compliant with technical requirements of the Unified Development Code, Weiner indicated that there may be court litigation challenging the department's acceptance of the proposal under terms of the "vaguely drafted county redevelopment ordinance," which grants a developer extra density in return for restoring an unused or underused property. The redevelopment process does not subject the plan to an additional public hearing and Council cannot reject it after it successfully undergoes technical review. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

Delaware Economic & Financial Advisory Council again cut its estimate of state revenue for the coming fiscal year, but a key member of the official forecasting panel questioned whether it was being too pessimistic.

At its last meeting before Governor Jack Markell submits his proposed fiscal 2010 budget to the General Assembly in January, the council reduced its revenue forecast to $3,176 million, down $42.4 from what it forecast in September. David Gregor, the finance department's director of research and analysis, said that was the result a combination of the effect of the recession and the anticipated effect of the loss of jobs with the closing of the Valero refinery on personal income tax collections. He said he had to treat as confidential information the department has received from the company and declined to say how much each factor contributed. He did say that neither was "insignificant." Income tax brought in the largest share of state revenue, 35%, in the fiscal year which ended June 30.

Increases in receipts from corporate franchise taxes and escheat collections barely offset a $32.2 million drop in expected revenue from the income tax during the current fiscal year, resulting in a $500,000 upward revision of the September estimate. At a meeting of the council's revenue committee on Dec. 21, economist Fred Dixon said the group was overlooking recent signs of economic recovery. "Why is all this [anticipated revenue] going to be lower if the economy is growing?" he asked. Committee chairman Ken Lewis replied that the Delaware economy is not as diversified as the national economy. Gregor said that specific circumstances are affecting particular state revenue streams -- effect of competition from Maryland on gambling in Delaware, for example. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

SCHOOL ENROLLMENT: Brandywine continues to attract significantly more students living in the other four conventional school districts in New Castle County than it loses to them. However, the number of youngsters living in Brandywine enrolled in charter schools increased this academic year after tailing off in 2008-09. As reported in conjunction with approval on Dec. 14 of the final version of Brandywine's fiscal 2010 operations budget, total district enrollment increased by 34 over last year, to 10,366. According to the state Department of Education, Brandywine ranks third behind Christina and Red Clay in number of students and has slightly more than Colonial. Concord High has the largest enrollment of any Brandywine school, 1,282.

Brandywine's favorable school-choice balance stands at 267 youngsters -- 410 transferring in versus 143 transferring out. Resultant net revenue from the other districts is $814,144. Largest net gain -- 110 students -- is from Christina. Meanwhile, 605 charter school students are costing Brandywine $2,418,451 in tuition payments. Edison Charter in Wilmington has the largest number, 167. Last year, Brandywine took in 229 more 'choice' students than it lost and sent 575 youngsters to charter schools. Budget data did not disclose how many Brandywine district residents attend non-public schools. Last year, the number was 3,516, or 25.5% of potential total enrollment. Spokesman Ron Gough said the state Department of Education will post current non-public enrollment information in February.

    

NO TAX HIKE: Brandywine School District will be able to get along without asking residents to approve an increase in the $1.286-per-$100 operations component of its tax rate next year, chief financial officer David Blowman told the school board. When voters last approved an increase in the rate ceiling in June, 2007, the district promised not to hold another tax referendum for three years. Largely as the result of closing two schools this year, "we can get one more year out of [the 2007] referendum," Blowman said at the board meeting on Dec. 14. At the meeting, the board approved the final version of a $131.1 million operating budget for the current fiscal year. That is down about $100,000 from fiscal 2009 and is expected to result in a $4.5 million surplus of revenue over spending.

Blowman tempered favorable news about the district's fiscal status with a gloomy projection about state government's outlook as the governor and General Assembly get down to the business of crafting a budget for the coming fiscal year. "It's not looking any better and is beginning to look worse than last year," he said. The state provides about 45% of Brandywine's operating income. While public education did not take as big a hit as other functions in this year's spending plan, a good portion of that was the result of the federal government's economic stimulus package, which Blowman described as "not sustainable." He said he doesn't think public schools "can continue to rely on the federal government." (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

WASHINGTON GIG: The 20 students in the Maple Lane Elementary School chorus have been invited to sing at the White House on December 18. Brandywine superintendent Mark Holodick said the school submitted an application for the honor and an audition tape and was accepted. As far as he knows, their appearance is not related to any special event beyond entertaining visitors to the presidential mansion. It is unknown whether President Obama will have returned from attending the climate-control meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark, by the time the youngsters from Claymont arrive at his home. Mrs. Obama and their daughters are not expected to accompany him on that trip.

    

County Council broke with state government's opposition to deepening the Delaware River's shipping channel after being given a hint that an even more severe rupture involving an environmental issue may be in the offing.

A few hours after the state's deputy solicitor, Jennifer Oliva, argued in federal court for an injunction to block the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from beginning to dredge the channel without a state permit, Council, at its last session in 2009, approved a resolution urging the governor and the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control to reverse position and support the controversial project. Jea Street, who sponsored the resolution, said the project "will enable us to create more jobs and also keep the ones we have now." Timothy Sheldon said that "it has finally hit people ... who talk environment ... that they can be laid off." The resolution passed without dissent although three of the 13 Council members -- Lisa Diller, George Smiley and Robert Weiner -- abstained from the vote.

At a finance committee meeting before the session on Dec. 8, Kimoko Harris, business agent for the longshoremen's union, said a deeper river channel is needed to accommodate larger deeper-draft vessels that could soon bring added business to the port of Wilmington. Moreover, he said, it could lead to expansion of the port at the mouth of the Christina River south along the larger river to Pigeon Point near the Delaware Memorial Bridges. Although no one mentioned it at the committee meeting, that clearly could run afoul of the state's Coastal Zone Act. "We're environmentalists, too," Harris said, "but the benefits considerably outweigh the risks." The port "has the potential to be our future," Council president Paul Clark said. (CLICK HERE to read the Philadelphia Inquirer report on the court hearing.)

Although he supported the resolution John Cartier noted that deepening the channel to 45 feet will require dynamiting rock. "I want to know what happens when you start blasting a river bottom," he said.

    

REFINERY NOT DEAD:  "We will find a user for that facility. ... There will be an outcome in the next six months to a year," Alan Levin declared. In the most hopeful statement by a state official since Valero announced closure of its refinery at Delaware City, the state's economic development director told an audience at the University of Delaware's Academy of Lifelong Learning on Dec. 7 that Governor Jack Markell has obtained agreement by the company to keep the plant intact and in a semblance of continued operation for at least a year. During that time, Valero will continue to operate its terminal on the Delaware River, bringing in gasoline to be distributed to retailers previously supplied from the refinery.

Keeping the refinery 'marking time' is necessary to maintain the continuous operation necessary to keep its exemption from the state's Coastal Zone Act. He acknowledged that it is not likely the landmark law would be changed to accommodate a new owner if there was an intervening shutdown. Levin disclosed that there is a possibility the Venezuelan national oil company, which indirectly owns Citgo, would be interested in a joint venture operation at Delaware City. The fact that the South American nation isn't on good terms with the United Sates is no impediment, he said. "We're not in the foreign affairs business. ... We've got people who need jobs. ... I will talk with anyone who walks through the door who can write a check and will operate [the refinery] in the proper way," he said.

    

County Council and the public will have a say in the program to eliminate illegal connections to the sanitary sewer network in Brandywine Hundred, according to Christy Gleason, county government's deputy chief administrative officer.

There was some confusion about that after Gleason issued a press statement on Dec. 2 to the effect that the program had been "launched." That was just a day after officials of the Department of Special Services unveiled a plan for it before a Council committee. As previously reported by Delaforum, that presentation was described as tentative and intended to solicit comments and suggestions for modifications from Council members. Several were forthcoming at the meeting. Council president Paul Clark said it was his understanding that "details were still being discussed and refined." John Cartier, whose district covers about half of the hundred, said it was his impression that "not all aspects of the sewer 'clearwater' elimination program were fully developed."

Asked for clarification, Gleason told Delaforum on Dec. 4 that "work will begin on drafting proposed legislation and the appropriate policies and procedures" looking to implement the program beginning in July, 2010. "If legislation is required, it would be brought before Council ... and advertised for public comment at that time," she said. The program as described calls for spending $5 million to partly reimburse homeowners for the cost of disconnects. It also provides for fines for non-compliance and for not admitting inspectors to the property. Every house in the hundred would be inspected. One observer questioned whether that would be an unconstitutional search lacking probable cause for enforcement. The department estimates that six of every seven houses do not have illegal connections. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

    

RESERVED: Curbside parking in downtown Wilmington recently got a bit rarer when city officials designated the east side of the 700

block of Walnut Street as the exclusive domain of "official" vehicles. That was a most-convenient two-hour zone for citizens having business in the government buildings on neighboring French Street. John Rago, city government's communications director, in response to an inquiry from Delaforum, said the restriction was necessary because city and county vehicles were receiving too many parking tickets. The city levies and collects parking fines. Since the restriction was imposed, he said, the parking spaces have been well used and the number of tickets "has been cut to practically zero." Delaforum checked the site at

different times on consecutive days and found:

10:30 a.m. Tuesday (Dec. 1):

12 n. Monday (Nov. 30):

1:30 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 3):

3 p.m. Wednesday (Dec. 2):

4:30 p.m. Tuesday (Dec. 1):

    

TAX BREAK: When it next meets, on Dec. 8, County Council is all but certain to grant Fisker Automotive a five-year tax holiday. The company, which has announced plans to buy the former General Motors plant on Boxwood Road, will be exempt from having to pay county property tax until June 30, 2015. Renovating and operating the plant, according to the prologue of a proposed ordinance sponsored by Joseph Reda, "will create quality jobs and re-hire opportunities for those previously laid off." Providing the tax incentive "will increase the likelihood for success of this undertaking," it says. According to data posted on the Department of Land Use website, G.M. paid a 2009 tax bill totaling $283,437.65. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

Last updated on December 29, 2009

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