Ocean View moves forward with reforms

After controversy over the descriptions of town council seat districts plagued Ocean View’s 2007 elections, the town is now one step closer to finally resolving issues surrounding the discrepancy between those verbal descriptions and the official district map.

With a Dec. 4 first reading of a new ordinance, the council moved forward with eliminating the verbal descriptions of the districts in which council members run for their seats, in favor of relying upon the map alone.

The council also finalized another change to town elections, voting 4-0 (with one abstention) to adopt a new ordinance regarding the registration of voters in the town. The ordinance allows qualified voters to register as close to elections as 10 business days — instead of 30 calendar days — and provides at least one Saturday during the month prior to an election during which town hall will be open for voter registration.

The ordinance is aimed at helping to increase voter turnout in the town by making it easier for qualified voters to get registered. The town, unlike some of its neighbors, does not allow qualified voters to vote unless they have officially registered prior to the election.

The town also has a time-out period for non-active voters that is supposed to strike them from the rolls of registered voters after two years of inactivity in town elections, which could increase the need for the availability of registration. Easing the way to register, or re-register, has been a priority for town election officials this year.

Council members on Tuesday also voted to adopt an ordinance that adds sabbatical leave to permissible leaves of absence for town employees, on a unanimous vote.

Water system startup issues still ongoing

The council also considered this week an ordinance that would finalize a reduction in the fees the town charges for utility connection permits, which had previously been set at $100.

The new fee would be just $10, which town officials had recommended be in place for the coming year, in which the town will be requiring all property owners to connect to the town’s new central water system.

With costs for physical connection to the system, further costs for conversion of existing wells to agricultural use or physical abandonment of the wells, and the anticipated costs to customers for water service, the council decided to help property owners out with those first-year costs by reducing the permit fee for the utility connection.

However, Councilman Bill Wichmann said on Dec. 4 that he was concerned with the fill-in-the-blank format of a proposed resolution on the subject of the water utility fees and would like to have numbers for those costs to the town and to citizens finalized before such a resolution is adopted.

Council members expect to return the utility permit fees to the $100 level after the first year of water system hookups, but they also remained divided Tuesday as to whether the return to that rate should be pre-legislated or should be done with further discussion late in 2007 or early in 2008.

There was also continued concern over whether the ordinance setting the new utility permit fee should more specifically refer to water utility permits or a water connection fee.

Town Solicitor Dennis Schrader had previously advised the council that it did not particularly matter what the fee was called since the town would only have one utility for which it would be charging a connection fee.

However, Public Works Director Charlie McMullen said he didn’t necessarily agree, since the town could potentially have to deal someday with other types of utility connections taking place on town-owned streets.

Town Manager Conway Gregory said he agreed with Schrader’s assessment of water as the town’s only utility for the foreseeable future, but he said he believed the town should go ahead and call the fee a “water connection permit fee” to ensure it was labeled appropriately going into the future.

McMullen noted, however, that the town has no place in its ordinances currently that allows it to charge a “connection fee.” The code allows only for a “utility permit fee.”

“In the future, we could have fees for other utilities,” McMullen also noted.

Council members said they would like to have further clarification from Schraeder before they take a scheduled vote to adopt the new fee structure. Time is running short for that vote, with the water system scheduled to go online sometime in January, though an exact date has not yet been announced.

The council members agreed Dec. 4 to plan for a second reading of the ordinance at their Jan. 7 meeting, which would likely be in time for the water system startup.

Gregory reported Tuesday that the final stages of work leading up to that system startup is still ongoing, with engineer Chuck Hauser still working to finalize the costs and related fees that customers of the new system will pay.

Some 950 or more units are expected to go online in 2008, and a concrete number is needed by Tidewater Utilities before the town can finalize its deal with the company to purchase Certificates of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCNs) and begin to serve virtually the entire town with central water.

The town is also working to close out construction-related business with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which would then complete the town’s loan process with the USDA and allow it to begin use of grant funds from the department. Gregory warned that the costs of construction and the lack of immediate availability of the grant funds could put the town in a cash flow crunch moving ahead in the next few months.

Also on Dec. 4:

• Council members voted unanimously to adopt four police procedural policies, involving strip and cavity searches, limits of police authority, cell block holding facilities and the incident command system.

• The Nautical Sounds Barbershop Chorus of Ocean View presented a check to the town for $200 for the use of the town hall while their usual rehearsal area at the South Coastal Library is unavailable. The quartet also serenaded the council and assembled citizens with “Silent Night.”

• Gregory reported a plan to meet in mid-January with state natural resources officials about the possibility of establishing a pedestrian trail system along the Assawoman Canal within Ocean View town limits. He said public discussion of the idea would take place before any concrete steps are taken.

• On the subject of the town’s workman’s compensation insurance, Gregory advised the council not to immediately join a group effort from the Delaware League of Local Governments that could potentially reduce the town’s workman’s comp rates from $39,517 per year to $37,664.

Gregory said the minor difference in costs could be eliminated if fewer than the full membership of the DLLG joined the group, and he expressed concern that the town would end up carrying the risk of lower-rated municipalities when it enjoys a strong rating on its own.

He said the DLLG program could be advantageous to the town in the future and advised considering it again after the initial formation of the program is complete, despite higher costs to join it in the future if the town elects to do so.

• Council members agreed to cancel their planned Dec. 18 work session.

• The council voted unanimously to send to the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission a request from Bear Trap to redevelop all but one of nine original commercial units in the community for residential use.

Skip Valliant of Seacoast Realty, who had recently been called in to consult on the redevelopment, said the Freeman Companies had struggled with the commercial property for years and that he believed a request last year to redevelop just four of the units for residential use had been a mistake. “It just hasn’t worked,” he said of the commercial endeavors there. A single, small commercial unit will remain.

• Council members found fault with a facilities report from Kercher Engineering Inc. on the life of the new Ocean View Public Safety Building, which was the first town facility to undergo such a study. Wichmann said he believed the report was inaccurate as it did not correctly report things such as the number of doors in the building or the type of siding used, and he found fault with the lifespans stated for materials used therein.

Council members recommended the engineer work with the original architect on the project to improve the accuracy of the report, which Councilman Roy Thomas noted was often the result of consulting books of engineering standards rather than a direct study of a particular building.