County opposes adding two at-large members

Sussex County Council members were asked to take a position this week on what has been a hot-button issue in the county in recent years: proposed expansion of the council’s number by the addition of two at-large members. A vote at the council’s Tuesday, March 17, meeting indicated that not only has the makeup of the council changed this year, but some opinions on the issue have as well.

“In the past, I supported two at-large council members to encourage county-wide debate,” noted Council President Vance Phillips (R-5th). “Difficult economic times and the real numbers that have been presented today have caused me to withdraw that support.”

Figures from the county finance department, as presented to the council on Tuesday, indicated that the addition of two at-large council members to the existing five district-elected members would cost the county $248,000 initially and $198,000 per year in ongoing costs – at a time when the county is struggling with falling revenues and a $7 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year.

Those costs come from $50,000 in estimated costs to alter the county administrative building to provide offices for the proposed new council members and to the council meeting room, as well as $104,000 in salary and benefits, and $34,000 for additional utility costs, supplies and other needs.

The issue was raised before the council as state legislators returned this week to their 2009 session after a traditional break for budgetary matters. Legislation that would add the two at-large members to the Sussex council is expected to receive consideration this legislative session, and council members were asked to take a formal position on the matter so that legislators can take their position into account before considering the legislation.

Councilman George Cole (D-4th) said he felt opposing the change on the grounds of cost was something he found “concerning.”

“The last council understood it was going to cost additional funds,” he pointed out. “But I think it benefits this large county with its growing population.

“Right now, people only have one councilperson they can influence with voting,” Cole added. “Two at-large members would have to run with a vision for this entire county. They would have to respond to all constituents throughout the county. The other council members tend to pay attention to our own little districts, not the county as a whole. It would make for better debate, better government for Sussex County.

“We were aware it would cost money,” he said. “And I would be a little concerned if we all said we couldn’t do it now because of the costs.

“We have a $200,000 lawsuit with the State of Delaware,” Cole pointed out of the county’s partnership in a legal suit in opposition to state-instituted pollution control buffers. He has supported the county removing itself as a party in the suit, particularly citing the costs. “It would have paid for that,” he said Tuesday of the costs to add two at-large seats to the council.

Cole found support for expanding the council lacking, however.

“I consider the entire county when I look at legislation and all the issues that come before us,” countered Councilwoman Joan Deaver (D-3rd), who as president of Citizens for a Better Sussex championed enhanced representation of coastal Sussex residents on the council and expansion of its membership.

“If people want better representation, they should look at getting us some staff, so we can better address our constituents,” she added. “I think five people can take care of it quite well.”

Councilman Michael H. Vincent (R-1st) also cited the financial reasons in his opposition to expanding the council. “I’m not in favor of increasing the council’s size,” he said, “especially today, when we’re worrying about an $11 million shortfall and changing our employee benefits.

“I’m hard-pressed to spend $200,000 on something I don’t think is needed,” he added. “People are elected by district, and you answer to those people. We do have the entire county to look over, and I think we do that.”

Councilman Samuel R. Wilson Jr. (R-2nd) said he didn’t like even the concept of at-large representation. “I’m opposed to having more council members. I said that all along. I said that 10, five years ago.

“We have four senators who rep this county. We have 20 percent more [people on the council], and they do a good job of it. Someone from Greenwood would have to answer to someone in Bethany,” he said, adding that if at-large representation was needed in Sussex, “Then we should have some state representatives running at-large, because maybe our representatives in Sussex County don’t represent people in Wilmington. People are better represented when you pick out certain areas. Otherwise, you lose accountability.”

Cole then argued for a compromise solution, saying that he knew of another county with a similar council makeup in which a change in representation had been made. He said that county had changed its rules so that candidates had to come out of a particular district but then ran for election county-wide. Ocean View’s town council is elected on a similar basis.

“A lot of poor decisions were made,” said Cole of the past. “I think we need better government, more open government. Nobody is running with a vision for the county. And even though development has slowed down, a lot of people feel the council hasn’t been addressing their issues, has just been offering a knee-jerk reaction.

“A subtle change like that,” Cole argued, “you might want to think about it. It would bring a better representative type of government to Sussex County.”

Phillips concluded discussion of the issue on that note, saying Cole’s idea was something to be discussed another day. In the meantime, he said, the council had to make its position on adding two at-large council members clear to the state legislature. The council voted 4-1 to oppose adding the members, with only Cole in favor of the change.

Phillips further suggested the council consider in the future whether they should pursue possible county-wide election for the office of council president, instead of council members selecting from among their number.

Still, “With respect to expanding the council now, I think it would be a mistake,” he concluded.

Council updated on transfer tax, eminent domain legislation

As part of their legislative update on March 17, council members also inquired about potential changes to the state’s realty transfer tax distribution. While no legislation that would directly impact how much of the state’s 3 percent transfer tax the county would receive has been put forward in this legislative session, county and local officials have been watching the situation closely as state budgetary shortfalls make the possibility even stronger than in years past.

Hal Godwin, the county’s legislative liaison, said Tuesday, however, that there was some potential for a shakeup in legislation that had not yet been formally introduced in the General Assembly.

Godwin said a bill not yet introduced by Rep. Richard Cathcart (R-9th) would reportedly change apportionment of transfer taxes from an even split between the state and county, at 1.5 percent to each, to a 2 percent and 1 percent state/county apportionment. He said he would be watching the issue closely and would notify council of any movement.

The council was also told by Godwin on Tuesday that the state’s eminent domain bill was being brought back again. The bill, which was passed by both houses of the General Assembly last year but was not signed by outgoing Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, aims to restrict the use of eminent domain by more clearly defining the benefit to the public required for such action.

“It does not allow anyone who has that authority to do so for anything but public use,” Godwin explained, noting an earlier controversy over municipalities taking property for economic-development purposes. “This would ensure that eminent domain is used for a more limited, defined public use, not including the generation of revenues, employment or economic health,” he added.

County notice signs to get bigger

The council this week also approved a change to the style of signage the county uses for public notices on planning and board of adjustment hearings. Lank explained that his office had received a number of complaints regarding the current 12-by-18-inch signs and lack of information on them, so the council had asked for recommendations from staff.

The current signs are typewritten with black ink on white posterboard or card stock and have a yellow sticker with the case number and time and date of the related hearing, as well as some information on the history of the application. They are posted on wooden stakes on the affected property.

“It’s been the standard for 10 to 20 years,” Lank noted.

He said he’d given some consideration to the needs of inspectors posting the signs, such as availability of storage and their transportation, as well as the public’s ability to read the signs (including posting them at multiple locations) and a need to retrieve the signs after the hearing.

“They don’t all hold up well,” Lank said, noting damage from rain and a tendency for them to fall off and get ripped off – half of them being vandalized.

As an improvement, Lank recommended a shift to an 18-by-24-inch sign of corrugated plastic or fiberglass, mounted on a wire frame, much as political signs are now frequently created. He recommended black lettering on a white or orange background.

“We need to make the case number larger, so people can see it and provide a phone number for information that is large enough to read from road,” Lank said, noting that with the typewritten notices, “they have to get up to the sign to read.” He said the wire frames would be easier to put in the ground without damage to the signs and won’t blow over as easily.

In a nod to cost efficiency, Lank said he would like to use up the existing 100 stakes and 120 poster-type signs, possibly using them for BoA cases until they run out, while using the new-style signs for change-of-zone notices. “Most BoA cases are in subdivisions. People walk by them,” he explained.

Council gave approval to the change to a larger, yellow sign on a consensus, giving Lank the go-ahead to put the new sign standards in place as soon as the signs are ready.

Police appeal for continued grants

Finally, council members heard on Tuesday from Georgetown Police Chief William Topping, who is also currently chairman of the Municipal Police Chiefs Association in Delaware. Topping asked the council to continue its policy of municipal police grants, despite budget cutback efforts.

“I appreciate your position,” he told council members. “I understand the cutbacks and sacrifices the employees are making to balance the county budget. And if funding can’t be kept at $25,000 per agency, we’d ask that you still consider funding agencies at a level acceptable to the county council.”

“There are a lot of state cutbacks,” he noted, saying that much of police departments’ State Aid to Local Law Enforcement (SALLE) grants have been cut. “That was signed into law by the governor last year, but they took it away at the end,” he noted.

“We’ve been getting that funding for 20 years,” he said. “Not getting that funding has had an impact on us all.” He pointed to cutbacks in technology, training and more. “Municipal agencies constantly respond to assist the state police in unincorporated areas,” he emphasized in his plea.