May 2010

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REPEAL SOUGHT: Councilman William Powers, an outspoken critic of  'workforce housing', has introduced an ordinance to repeal the controversial county law. The proposed measure put before Council on May25 and referred to the Planning Board and Department of Land Use is certain to generate considerable heat as it goes through the public hearing and review process. Some civic organizations have maintained that granting developers greater density in return for their providing a range of housing prices adversely affects neighboring communities. Twelve plans, involving 2,922 lots, are pending. Two, covering 978 lots, have been recorded, but construction has not begun. Powers' measure would allow those projects to proceed under provisions of the current law. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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NO SURPRISE: County Council unanimously approved a $164.7 million operating budget for the coming fiscal year, a 4.1% increase over the most recently published estimate of spending in the year ending June 30. Except for three minor changes, that was what County Executive Christopher Coons asked for in March. For as long as anyone can remember, Council has approved budgets pretty much unchanged from what had been proposed. Amendments added $615,000 to the fiscal 2011 spending plan to cover an increase in what Delmarva Power charges for street lighting and subtracted the $2.1 million 'savings' resulting from agreement last month by a large county union to continue the 5% pay cut imposed last year and $41,000 from Council's applying the same pay cut to its staff.

As previously reported, the property-tax rate will remain at 70.18 for each $100 of assessed value in unincorporated areas, scaled down, proportionate to the extent of county services received, to 24.36 in Newark and Wilmington. The $6.9 million deficit initially envisioned in the new budget will be covered by tapping into the $47.4 million reserve expected to be on hand June 30. The fiscal 2011 sanitary sewer budget is $65.7 million, and includes a 4% increase in fees for sewer service. In another matter at its May 25 meeting Council agreed to exempt dog owners who are disabled or age 65 and older from having to pay anything beyond a 'processing charge' to license their animal. That will initially be set at $4. A license for a neutered dog currently costs $10 and $15 for an unneutered one. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

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State Senator Harris McDowell said he will insert a provision in this year's capital spending authorization to "convey title" to about one-fifth of the Mount Pleasant school building to Edgemoor Community Center for $1.

He said there is "plenty of precedent" for  what essentially amounts to giving away state-owned property, citing the Concord Gallery shopping center on land at Talleyville which he said was 'sold' to a private developer for a dollar. Brandywine School District, which operates Mount Pleasant Elementary and is planning to move its administrative offices there, will not receive anything from the transaction. The community center, he said at an 'announcement event' on May 25, will own about 64,000 square feet at the eastern end of the building "in perpetuity" and "be able to stay here with no fear" of possible eviction in the future. The community center several years ago paid for building a 6,500-square-foot addition to the building.

McDowell said that, although there remain "a few little details" to be worked out, the arrangement has the approval of the Brandywine school board. In her remarks at the event, board president Debra Heffernan spoke of it as a done deal, but acknowledged afterwards that the board has not discussed the matter in public nor taken "a formal vote." Being able to carry the property as an asset will make it easier for the community center to obtain financing. Scott Borino, executive director, said that will be tested soon when it undertakes another expansion -- most likely adding a floor to its end of the building. As Delaforum previously reported, the idea of acquiring ownership came after the school district sought a significant increase in the community center's rent. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

'Epilogue language' in the annual capital spending authorization -- commonly called the 'bond bill' -- is the state equivalent of congressional earmarks. Members of the joint committee which drafts the legislation -- of which McDowell is one -- for the most part control what is included. The General Assembly as a whole votes on the measure as a package without being able to change any of its provisions.

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With testimony ranging from emotional to angry, 14 paraprofessional employees and supportive teachers and parents berated the Brandywine school board for having approved the layoff of 44 'paras' at the conclusion of this academic year.

On the verge of tears, Beth Eckerd said she must now tell children she serves at Harlan Elementary, "Next year you'll have to be on your own. ... It has been decided I am no longer important to you and your education." She and the others said the youngsters most adversely affected will be those with learning disabilities and other problems which require personal attention with elementary schools bearing most of the burden. "The district can do more to cut costs without slashing these classroom jobs," said Karen Kennedy. "The bottom line [is] the children will suffer," Heidi Shanus said. "The budget is being balanced on the backs of the lowest paid employees," according to Karen Kennedy. During 45 minutes of comments, no one specifically referred to the 23 teachers also being let go.

Superintendent Mark Holodick told upwards of 65 attenders at the board meeting on May 24 that he recommended the job cuts as "the worst-case scenario" for coping with what he said was  a "two-year $7 million deficit." He said that, after the amount of state support is determined during the summer, some of those affected may be recalled. But he added that he has "not been given [any] indication that things will change." Steven O'Toole, a parent, sharply criticized the board for not informing the public until after the decision had been made. "We should have been involved early in the process," he said. With larger class sizes and fewer staff members dealing with student discipline, the cuts "will impact the education experience of all our children," according to Brian Winchell. (CLICK HERE to read previous Delaforum article.)

In a separate context, financial officer David Blowman  revealed that the district expects to receive about $1 million in federal 'Race to the Top' grants during each of the next four years, but said that money will be used "to further our strategic plan" because none of it can be spent "to offset lost positions."

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INTEREST SPARKED: At least a dozen folk have expressed "serious interest" in participating in the county's resident curator program, Robert Merrill, the program manager, told a County Council committee. He said there have been requests for follow-up tours at four of the five properties currently being offered and that he expects to receive more before the June 30 deadline for

submitting proposals. Although 39 people visited there during a recent series of open houses, no one has shown further interest in the Talley house in Talley-Day Park. On the other hand, the Gregg house on Mill Creek Road now has five prospective curators; the Jester house on Grubb Road has five; and the Ivyside Farm house in Becthel Park and Woodstock in Banning Park, two each. After three failed attempts in the past to launch the program, "I think we're going to see success in this phase of the program," he said.

In return for investing at least $150,000 to renovate the structure -- which can include so-called 'sweat

Visitors inspect the Jester farmhouse in northern Brandywine Hundred during a recent open house.

equity' --  and agreeing to live there and maintain it while periodically allowing public access, selected curators will have indefinite rent-free leases and be exempt from having to pay county property tax, although not school tax. In another matter at the committee meeting on May 18, Merrill said the department is cracking down on sports groups which are not allowing easy public to the fields they lease for a token annual rent when not being used by the groups. That is required by the lease agreements, but the department has found that, as their leadership changes with time, some groups have come to believe the fields to be their exclusive domains, he said.

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OKAY BY  US:  Superintendent Mark Holodick said Brandywine School District is amenable to sharing with Edgemoor Community Center ownership of the building housing Mount Pleasant Elementary School and soon to include the district's administrative office.  "Everyone agreed it would be the right thing to do," he told Delaforum on May 14 after district and community center officials and legislators who support the idea met privately. While details still must be worked out, "it's all very do-able," he added.  Main concern is to design a parking lot to accommodate both owners. The district, he said, is in contact with the Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Control about a situation stemming long ago from a leaking gasoline storage tank at a nearby service station.

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Brandywine School District has notified 23 teachers and 44 paraprofessionals that they will be laid off at the end of the current academic year.

Although it has long been common practice for public school districts to provide such notification to meet a statutory mid-May deadline and to recall all or most of the recipients when there is a more firm estimate of enrollments for the coming year, Brandywine's reduction in force this year is considerably greater than in previous years and it appears unlikely that a substantial portion of those affected will be recalled. Last year, four of the five staff members laid off were recalled. The school board approved this year's cuts behind closed doors at a special meeting on May 11. A source within the district said that all Brandywine administrators previously had their contacts renewed for next year. That move was not publicly disclosed by the district.

In a 'dear staff' message sent to employees after the meeting, superintendent Mark Holodick wrote, "It is my fervent hope that these cuts will not be as significant when the state budget is finalized; however, we cannot assume that this will be the case." Citing "significant budgetary constraints," he said that without "proactive steps to contain costs" during the past several years, the lay-offs "would have been far more significant." In a posting on the district website, Holodick said paraprofessionals have been hit harder "as the result of our attempt to protect direct classroom teaching positions." He specified that, despite loss of special taxing authority to do so, the district has retained elementary school reading specialists, which it regards as "a key priority."

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County Council is ready to provide nearly $7.4 million to replace the Claymont library with construction tentatively set to begin in about a year, but it turns out that the location of the new facility has not yet been decided.

Anne Farley, general manager of the Department of Community Services, revealed at a hearing on the proposed capital-spending budget that two sites are under consideration. She told Delaforum after the hearing that, in addition to the previously reported offer by Commonwealth Group to donate land in the Darley Green development, the department has been approached by the Catholic diocese offering to sell the unused Children's Home property on Green Street. The purchase would qualify for federal support as a redevelopment project, she said. Commonwealth's offer, she said, is conditioned on approval by the bank financing Darley Green. Farley said she anticipates a decision by the end of June. If the timetable holds, the library would open in September, 2012, she said.

The Claymont library is included in the $11.5 million of long-term bond financing the department is seeking for libraries. That is the second largest component of the proposed $73.5 million capital budget. By far the largest share -- 73% of the total -- would go for sanitary sewer work with most of it concentrated in Brandywine Hundred. Acting chief financial officer Ed Milowicki told the hearing on May 3 that county government will use its 'recovery zone' bond authorization, provided by the federal stimulus law, to sell the bonds which will qualify them for federal reimbursement of 45% of the cost of servicing the debt. That, he explained, will 'save' the county more than $3 million over the life of the bonds.

Last updated on May  27, 2010

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