County council adopts new councilmanic districts

The Sussex County Council, at its Tuesday, Nov. 15, meeting, adopted a redistricting ordinance and accompanying maps that establish new council districts through 2021, after last year’s U.S. Census showed significant growth and shifts in the population between 2000 and 2010.

The five new districts will be used to determine residency and the areas represented by members of county council. The new district maps take effect immediately. The new plan keeps all five current council members in their seats, and does not force any sitting member to run against another in the 2012 election, said county officials.

There were a number of changes to the boundaries, including an increase in the geographic size of District 1 to now include Bridgeville, along with Seaford and Laurel, and contraction of District 3, where population growth in the Lewes and Milton areas during the past 10 years left the district with too many constituents.

District 2, which abuts both Districts 1 and 3, saw some changes in its boundaries due to the changes in Districts 1 and 3; Districts 4 and 5 were relatively unchanged.

By law, the county must adjust its council districts – the process known as redistricting – following each decennial census to roughly equally distribute the population among the five county council districts. Based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 population results for Delaware, Sussex County’s population increased nearly 26 percent between 2000 and 2010, from 156,638 residents to 197,145 residents.

Sussex County Council on Tuesday also passed an ordinance amending Chapter 26 of the county code relating to the advisory retirement board. The council had asked Finance Director Susan Webb to see what Delaware’s other two counties do and what the State of Delaware does concerning retirement boards so they could have some comparisons before amending their ordinance.

Webb reported that the State had plenty of trustees and advisory committees, but no employees on their board, adding that it was a “billion-dollar pension” and couldn’t really be compared to Sussex County’s. She said New Castle County was mostly represented by unions and Kent County had a five-member board, with two members being employees and three members being community members – something she said could be considered biased.

“We think they are tilted to the outside having more say,” said Webb. “And while it is good to compare, we are unique.”

Webb said the membership they were requesting for Sussex County’s pension committee would be the finance director, county administrator, the County’s human resource manager, a county retiree, a current employee, a community member and a council member, which would be two more members than now.

Ultimately, the council chose to remove the county council member from the committee and decided to add another community member, for a total of two. Councilwoman Joan Deaver was the lone dissenting vote, saying she wanted a Sussex County Council representative on there.

“In looking at the other counties and the State, none of them have anybody that was elected to serve on them. I’d be in favor of no county council member serving because council has the final say anyway,” said Council President Michael Vincent.

The council also heard from Public Service Commission Ombudsman David Bonar and PSC Executive Director Bill O’Brian on the process of approving a utility rate increase, such as for sewer. (The County operates much of the area’s sewer systems.) Councilman George Cole said the council gets many calls from constituents on the process and they wanted a clearer understanding of how everything works.

O’Brian said the process works much like a court case, with a hearing schedule, data requests from parties and pre-trial testimony and cross-examination. He explained that the PSC just received jurisdiction over wastewater utilities in 2004, although the commission has been in place since 1949.

Councilman Sam Wilson asked who pays for outside consultants or “experts” that can be called for testimony, and O’Brian said the commission pays them and then bills the utility.

“So, then, it all goes back to the users,” said Wilson.

Cole asked about franchise agreements and about “revisiting them through legislation.” He also asked what type of role the County could have.

“Do we have any impact over your rate increases?” he asked.

“New Castle County has intervened as a party” to the hearings, O’Brian noted. “And then they have access to all the discovery.”

He also said the County could take a bigger role though the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN) process.

Cole asked if they had ever turned a rate increase request down. “The perception is that you approve every rate increase,” he said.

O’Brian said, “In the 15 years I have been here, I can’t think of one we have granted.”

He clarified that statement, though, saying that the commission sets “just and reasonable rates,” and the commission only grants the increase they determine to be “just and reasonable,” not particularly the increase the utility requests – hence the assertion that the PSC hasn’t granted requests exactly as they are made by the utilities.

He also said that they do turn down increases outright, something they just did at the Ridings, a Lewes-area community, because there wasn’t a need, explained O’Brian.

Outgoing County Administrator David Baker asked if the commission had an opinion on utilities combining costs for projects or segregating them out by development.

“That’s an excellent question,” said O’Brian. “We encourage utilities to develop uniform rates, but they need to have significant amounts of customers before they can get there.”

He said uniform rates are desirable because, if something drastic were to happen in one area, the affected customers would be “up a creek” if those costs were segregated. On the other hand, he said, “You don’t want one development subsidizing another just to have uniform rates.”

The council thanked Bonar and O’Brian for coming to share some of the process. Bonar reiterated that a customer who has a complaint or a concern can call (302) 736-7500.

In other news from the Nov. 15 council meeting:

• County Attorney Everett Moore had been asked to look into videoconferencing/technology options during Councilman Vance Phillips’ absence (due to recovery from his recent injuries in a plane crash) to keep council proceedings fair. He reported that Chapter 29 of the Delaware code specifically prohibits videoconferencing for members’ attendance when members of the body are elected.

• Wilson reported that Phillips is now recuperating in a Philadelphia rehabilitation facility and is “standing on his feet,” and feeling “much stronger and better than a few days ago when I talked with him.”

Those wishing to send Phillips cards or letters of encouragement can send them to either: Magee Rehabilitation Center, 1513 Race St., Philadelphia, PA 19102, ATTN: Vance Phillips, Room 560, Bed 1; or Councilman Vance Phillips, Sussex County Council, P.O. Box 589, Georgetown, DE 19947.