Unoccupied homes used as mail drops in terrorism-related scheme

Fenwick Island Police Chief William Boyden offered a warning to local property owners at the April 24 town council meeting, noting that it had been discovered that criminals with reported connections to terrorism were using homes unoccupied during the winter as mail drops for credit and cash cards that had been obtained through identity and credit theft.

The FIPD had received reports of unwanted mail — often in bulk and with multiple unrecognized recipients’ names — being received in some mailboxes in the town, and has been working with postal inspectors on the issue, he said.

He said there had been nearly $1 million in cash cards recovered in Fenwick Island alone, with additional drops having been discovered in northern Ocean City, Md.

“Someone will come by and pick them up and send them overseas,” Boyden said of the local aspect of the crime. “No one here has been victimized,” he said of those impacted by the identity and credit theft. And he noted that those picking up the mail may be unaware that it is linked to terrorism.

“The pickup people are people who have been here a couple years, and a lot of times they don’t know who they’re working for. They’re just paid $100 to pick up the mail,” he said.

If anyone receives mail at their property that is not addressed to them, Boyden urged them to turn it over to the police, or just to call them and they’d come pick it up.

“It’s not in the name of the home owner, usually,” he said, adding that it might be 25 envelopes addressed to 25 different people, and a property owner might come in for the weekend and discover the batch of unwanted mail that hadn’t yet been picked up by the courier.

Three Fenwick Island Police Department officers who were recently approved for promotions were honored at the April 24 meeting of the town council.

Boyden noted that, due to the transfer of some personnel this year, some changes in rank were needed. He explained that the department had hired a Chicago-based company to provide a promotions test and perform a professional evaluation for each candidate, including their background training and experience.

First to be promoted, back in January, was Sgt. John Devlin, who was promoted to lieutenant. And, last Friday, Brian Parsons was promoted to sergeant, while Steve Lowe was promoted to corporal.

Boyden admitted he’d “stolen” Parsons from the Selbyville Police Department and noted that he came with experience in spades, as a former police chief in Greenwood, and rarely said he couldn’t do something he was asked to do.

Lowe, who has served with the FIPD for about a year, in probationary status, was another new FIBD officer with plenty of experience. “We’re very fortunate to have people of this caliber,” Boyden said, “with the amount of experience they bring to the department. Steve was a Millsboro police officer,” he explained, noting Lowe’s brief stint as a car salesman before he returned to law-enforcement in Fenwick Island. “These two are incredible employees,” he said.

Things are also changing in the FIPD building, as Boyden said the Town had hired a contractor to convert a space in the building to a restroom for detainees, using a Sussex County grant that will cover the cost without a town match. He also announced an effort to convert the building to LED lighting, which he said would save from 50 to 55 percent on its electrical usage.

Town Manager Merritt Burke also announced the pending retirement of town clerk Lynn Massey in early June, with replacement Christie Brittingham starting this week and to receive about a month of training. The police department’s summer clerk will come back for a second summer starting this week, making it possible for both buildings to be open full-time through the season.

Town prepares for summer season

Fenwick Island Beach Patrol Capt. Tim Ferry thanked the Town’s Public Works Department for repainting the lifeguard stands ahead of the 2015 summer season. He noted that he had ordered two new signs for the beach and planned to have the stands put out during the week of May 16.

Ferry said all but two of the spots on the FIBP had already been filled, with expectation of filling those remaining spots on April 25, with a rescheduled try-out. In all, 21 of last year’s 28 guards are returning, he said. “They’re on the younger side, but not inexperienced,” he said, saying that the current roster should keep the FIPB “going good for the next couple years.”

He said the squad’s equipment and uniforms were ready to go, ahead of lifeguards being on duty on weekends until the second full week in June and daily from then on. Junior lifeguard program registration is under way, he added, with hopes of expanding the program further this summer.

Visitors to the town this summer will see the start of some changes in the town park, beginning with the removal of the old spring-rider toys in favor of a new crawl tube. But that’s just the beginning.

“We have found the job more intensive than we thought,” Mayor Audrey Serio reported from the Town’s Ad Hoc Park Committee. “Since the park was previously done, the [Americans with Disabilities Act] and insurance factors have come to light. When we’re making choices and thinking about what we may want to do, we have a lot of parameters that are controlling things.”

“A lot of the things we have out there are not compliant, and we’re trying to make it as compliant as we can,” she added. A variety of surface materials were considered at a recent committee meeting, along with a variety of playground equipment for another section of the park, all coming with a potentially significant price tag, depending on the final design choices.

Fencing was recently installed in that section of the park, which is being targeted for new equipment for a slightly older set of children, with a removable section included so that the eventual equipment could be moved in. The Town was constrained by time limits on the grant for the fencing and had to have it done before the rest of the project was ready.

“We’re looking at equipment for the next age group,” she said of the planned facilities targeted at kids in first through third grades.

“The gazebo has rotted and needs to be replaced,” she also lamented, further explaining that the sandbox had been deemed a health concern and would be removed, likely in favor of a new, enclosed sandbox structure, with the existing pieces repurposed as a community garden with an educational angle.

“The committee has recently met with playground equipment vendors,” she noted, adding that the committee members had been “shocked by the prices,” and were consulting with a landscaper on other ideas for the revamped park.

“I think we decided we will probably need to come up with a plan for the whole area, because a lot of things need to transpire and are going to have to be done over a series of time,” Serio said, noting that a presentation will be made to the council about what the committee has learned and their suggestions. The butterfly garden is planned to be replanted, while garden club members are planning to plant new flowers.

Meanwhile, the relatively new Canon Street Park has received a semi-mature 6-foot-tall river birch tree in honor of Fenwick again being named a Tree City USA by the Arbor Day Foundation. The council, on a 5-0 vote, on April 24 approved an Arbor Day resolution that is one component of that program, urging citizens to make efforts to protect trees and woodlands.

A similar unopposed vote approved the placement at the park of a Blue Star memorial from the National Garden Club Inc., honoring World War II military service members. The memorial is being purchased by the Barefoot Gardeners Club.

Additionally, those heading to the Canon Street Park will have a clear path, with an ADA-compliant sidewalk now tied in with a new walkway.

Public Works employee Vaughn McCabe received appreciation from the council last week after repurposing a sign at the town park that had come down during Hurricane Sandy. The parts were repainted and, with $100 of materials, transformed into a community information kiosk that currently offers information on native plants and parking in the town.

The information will join a “rack card” with general information on the town that is being re-designed to replace three separate fliers the Town currently hands out with parking permits.

New town beach signs are also going up. The 14 new signs, made of rigid PVC material, replace two sets of old aluminum and wooden signs, and reflect months of drafts for the verbiage being used. The Town of Ocean City has been using the material for signage for years, and the only down-side cited for it was potential for some fading in the sun.

Public Works Director Bryan Reed noted that the beach-accessibility mats are going in and benches being returned to the dunes, too. “It’s that time of year,” he said.

Also on April 24:

• Councilman Gardner Bunting reported that, with two months left in the Town’s fiscal year, it has taken in 94.6 percent of its anticipated operating-budget revenue, while spending 65.6 percent of the budgeted expenditures. “That leaves us very comfortable to finish the year out,” he said, also noting $277,470 in transfer tax revenue for the fiscal year through the end of March and $14,000 in excess of budgeted property tax revenues, $3,000 in excess for rental receipts tax revenue and $2,500 in excess for parking violations.

The Town had a very busy March for building-related fees, with $23,000 in permit fees, taking the Town to $153,000 for the fiscal year to date — nearly the full $160,000 budgeted for the fiscal year, with more than two months remaining. A rough estimate of the anticipated fees above the budgeted figure was given at 30 to 40 percent.

• Bunting also reported the hiring of an outside contractor to collect yard waste in the town five times between April and September, at a lower cost, due to the vendor’s equipment being able to handle enough volume to cover the entire town in one day.

Some residents at the meeting questioned the decision to collect yard waste twice in April and once each in May, June and September, saying they felt additional collections might be needed in July and/or August.

Burke said that, if a need to have additional collections was found, the Town could certainly accommodate them and would post a revised schedule if changes were made. Serio said the topic would be discussed during upcoming budget discussions. A budget meeting is scheduled for May 19 at 2 p.m., at which Burke said he would present a budget plan with department heads.

• The Town has also recently hired a part-time contract employee who has been digitally scanning old minutes from town meetings and property tax cards, to protect the records against damage to the paper copies.

Proposals are also coming in for a new telephone system that is set to be installed by the end of May.

• Burke reported approval of a DNREC surface-water grant that will include drawings of a plan to raise West Dagsboro Street to deal with flooding. Bids for the work should be done in the fall, with costs split with the State. He also reported having attended a workshop on federal hazard mitigation grants for homeowners who raise their homes. He said three Fenwick homeowners are benefitting from the grants after the flooding seen in Hurricane Sandy.

• Councilman Bill Weistling Jr. reported having surveyed town streets with an employee of Kercher Engineering, to note areas of needing repairs, and avoiding spending thousands of dollars on a new study. “They’re in pretty good shape. A lot of surface cracking could be sealed,” he said, adding that Glen Avenue needs resurfacing.

He recommended the Town have a calculation done during the summer of the footage of roadway that needs repaired, ahead of getting an estimate for a possible fall paving project “that could get everything up to par … for a few years.” Burke said such work was already in the capital budget for the coming fiscal year.

• Several residents expressed concern that the Town doesn’t use preferential bidding to favor businesses based in the town itself. Burke said he routinely reaches out to local vendors to include them in the bidding process and that if anyone has a business they want to be included on the list of vendors to be sent information, they should let him know.

“The best bid was taken,” Serio noted of the recent sign purchase, which was awarded to a Dagsboro-based company. Reed said he tries to use local businesses as much as possible, including the park walkway, which was done by a Frankford-based company, “And they were the cheapest.” Ferry added that he does the same and that, while the company that does the FIBP uniforms isn’t local, strictly speaking, its owners are summer residents of the town and consistently offer the lowest bid.

“Preferential is a bad word,” Serio cautioned those urging the Town to select town-based businesses. “We have to be very careful. People will ask why we awarded the bid to a higher bidder. We have to use total fairness.”

Burke said the issue could be considered by the Charter & Ordinance Committee, but that he was concerned the result would be companies outside the town opting not to bid at all, which could result in increased costs to the Town.

“There’s room for discussion,” he said. “It is common throughout the country to have that. I don’t know if you can make it work or not. … To date, I don’t think we have ever awarded a contract to anyone local just because they were local. We’ve picked the lowest if they’re qualified. We do reach out to as many local vendors as we can.”