County ready for first settlement in program

Sussex County is likely to be the first county in the state – and among the first in the region – to hand new home owners the keys to formerly foreclosed properties, under the Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

William Lecates, director of Community Development and Housing for the county, on Tuesday, Aug. 25, praised his staff for their work on the program, which aims to facilitate the sale of previously foreclosed homes to new owners, so the homes don’t become a blight on communities.

“They’re probably some of the top workers in this county,” he told Sussex County Council members at their weekly meeting, adding that the federal funding criteria for the program “is just unbearable.”

“Every step of the way, they change things on you,” Lecates said, “but we’ve hung in there.”

CDH staffers reported to the council that there were already three settlements scheduled for the first home owners to buy under the NSP. Those settlements, which had to be pushed back a week or more due to some of those federal funding issues, were scheduled to start in the next week or two, making Sussex likely to become the first county in the state to have new owners in a NSP house.

Lecates said his staff had been told at a recent regional conference that they were also “way ahead of the rest of the region” in utilizing the program.

Sussex’s NSP calls for the county to facilitate the sales and mortgages on the foreclosed homes, whereas New Castle County officials had elected to purchase the homes and then re-sell them.

“We established early on that we didn’t want to get in the real estate business,” Lecates said, noting an active partnership with the Sussex County Association of Realtors on the program.

“The other thing we found out is that lending institutions are extremely hard to get somebody to get a mortgage,” he noted. “That’s part of reason they’ve been delayed.”

County Attorney Everett Moore said there would have been several closings already, otherwise.

“This department is working so hard on this program,” Moore said, adding that he had been getting e-mails daily about problems with the process.

CDH staff also reported good news for the county’s Community Development Rehabilitation Program, with $312,000 in additional funding coming from federal economic recovery programs. Some $290,000 of that funding will go toward rehabilitating homes in the county, while the rest will help cover administrative expenses.

The additional funding will used in conjunction with $1.5 million in Community Development Block Grant funding.

Lecates said the office was also being asked to partner in weatherization efforts, which would involve energy audits for homes being rehabilitated under the program. With the audits, two sets of work specifications would be generated, so that the First State Action Agency could pay for energy improvements to the home while CDBG could pay for standard rehabilitation work.

He noted that there are currently 1,000 people on the waiting list for CDBG funding, both inside municipalities and county-wide. He said the office is getting ready to start sending out applications for next year’s grants.

County Administrator David Baker offered his thanks to the department for its work on the NSP.

“It didn’t really surprise me that they were first in the state,” he said. “It would have surprised me if they weren’t. They’ve done a really outstanding job over the years.”

State funding comes

at a cost for county

County officials expressed dismay on Tuesday at the idea of being forced to spend an additional $56,000 in county funding to complete construction of the new paramedic station in Laurel, above the agreed-upon contract with the contractor on the job.

Moore said a Department of Labor audit of the project had revealed that the contracted amount had not included “prevailing wages” for the workers – something required when state funding is used on such a project, and the State of Delaware is paying for 40 percent of the project.

The difference in the wages from those in the contract and those required by the state could add up to as much as $56,000 – an expense the council approved, grudgingly, on Aug. 25.

“Most of the rates are double what we would normally pay in the open marketplace in Sussex County,” noted Baker. “Some are even greater than those required by federal Davis-Bacon wages,” he added.

Baker said work had virtually stopped on the project because of the problem.

“I’m very disappointed to be presenting this to you for your consideration,” Baker told the council. “But we were not aware this was a requirement when it was bid.”

Moore advised the council that it would be subject “to very severe penalties” for not complying, including triple wages, negating the notion of giving back the state funding.

County Engineer Mike Izzo said county officials had asked at beginning of project if there were wage rates required.

“We do many jobs with wage rates,” he said, citing city, state and federal wage rates. “We were told wage rates were not required.” He said a state EMS official had told them that.

“I would certainly hope that we would send a letter to the governor protesting this waste of county dollars,” said Councilman Michael Vincent.

Council President Vance Phillips said he also had concerns about the notion of an unfair bid process, if the second-lowest bidder had used the wage rates and might have come in lower if the rates were the same.

“If the state were the ones who indicated we did not have to pay this, do they not have some liability?” he asked.

In the end, the council approved the additional expense, 3-2, with Councilman Sam Wilson and Phillips opposed.

Phillips took advantage of the presence of Delaware Economic Development Office Secretary Andy Levin earlier in Tuesday’s meeting to question such wage requirements.

Levin said the issue had come up between state officials and union leaders, including the notion of possibly reducing the wage rates until the recession was over. He said there had appeared to be some room for compromise on the issue but it was never changed.

Also on Aug. 25:

• The council voted unanimously to make a $1,000 grant to the Mid-Atlantic Symphony Orchestra for operating expenses, for $700 to the Town of Rehoboth Beach for a bandstand performance, and a total of $1,500 for Bridgeville’s annual Apple Scrapple Festival.

• Baker announced that county offices will be closed on Sept. 7 for Labor Day, while the council will not meet on either Sept. 1 or Sept. 8.

• The council approved payment of the full $15,000 annual municipal police grant to Bethany Beach, to be used toward the purchase of a new police car.

• The council approved an amended lease for the property upon which the Greenwood library stands. The size of the leased area was discussed by the council, as renovations have been proposed for the library that could significantly increase its footprint.

During the discussion, Phillips raised the issue of county funding for libraries, noting that the county gives grants of about half the amount to independent libraries that it does to county-run libraries. He said there had been “talk” of turning over county-owned libraries to local Friends groups, which he said would save the county money.

“Many counties run all the libraries in the county,” Councilman George Cole noted. “We don’t. We have three. I think if you have an active friends group, as we do with South Coastal, they do a heck of a lot. But I think it’s nice that the county has some of these assets, can use them for other things,” such as meeting places and for emergencies.

Council members questioned the existing funding formula for the libraries and whether it should be more clearly based on circulation and use.

“I would encourage you not to move forward with any expansion just yet,” Phillips advised Izzo, saying that with the Internet and interconnection of libraries, “Do they need the additional space?”

“I think library might be a very important thing for the people of Greenwood,” said Deaver, noting the importance of amenities and education in drawing businesses to an area.

• Izzo reported on plans to expand wastewater service to remaining unserved properties inside Millville town limits, using leftover funds from the recently completed project.

• The council reiterated its consensus not to pursue an ocean outfall for county sewer that would allow Rehoboth Beach facilities to join with county, due to the high cost.