County wrangles road responsibilities

Sussex County Council pointed out Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) shortcomings at the Aug. 2 council meeting, as County Administrator Bob Stickels prepares to add his requests to DelDOT’s Five-Year Capital Transportation Improvement Program.

Stickels reported news from U.S. Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), in the form of federal assistance for several projects around Sussex. He noted a federal share topping $50 million for the Indian River Inlet Bridge and $6.75 million to complete the Rehoboth Beach streetscape project.

(However, DelDOT spokesman Darrel Cole said they wouldn’t receive any federal money until October, and those funds would be doled out over a six-year period. And due to the current budget crunch, Cole said they didn’t have the money for a required 20 percent match.)

Locally, Stickels said the State Route (SR) 26 project, the SR54 project and improvements on Clayton Avenue in Frankford and Central Avenue in Ocean View were all facing delays.

Council Member Vance Phillips asked him if there’d ever been a time when Sussex County controlled its own roads, and Stickels hearkened back to the 1930s, when a sparsely populated Delaware had preferred to lump several things under county jurisdiction — the sheriff’s department had always been theirs, but the county controlled more court-related “row offices” (Register in Chancery, Clerk of the Peace, etc.) and even played a role in transportation, as the state transitioned toward its own fledgling highway department.

“But if you do that, you need to have the revenues,” Stickels added. “I’m not sure we want to do that.”

Phillips suggested highway revenues should come to the county, if state government wasn’t up to the task. He said they were working with a state approved land use plan, and had received fair warning that growth was coming.

“This county government has demonstrated its ability to keep up with the infrastructure needs that we control,” Phillips said. “If the state can’t get the job done, we’re going to have a crisis in this county.”

Stickels added his frustration with the way in which the state seemed to take advantage of responsible budgeting at the county level. He noted the switch from 60 percent/40 percent state support for paramedics to a 40/60 cost share and an animal control handover he deemed inevitable. “And now the General Assembly is talking about taking away a portion of the real estate transfer taxes,” Stickels added.

He advised council members they’d be hearing back from him in coming weeks, regarding a rate hike for building permits.

Phillips said opponents of growth frequently advised the county to slow down and let the state catch up, but he suggested it was unfair to “hold the county hostage to DelDOT’s inability.”

“You’d better be careful what you wish for,” quipped Council Member George Cole. Suggesting his colleagues had exhibited an inclination to approve anything, he said they might find themselves forced to slow down if they didn’t have roads in place.

Stickels said he felt DelDOT Secretary Nathan Hayward did a very good job, in recognizing need, and his comments weren’t meant to be taken as a criticism of Hayward’s efforts to garner funding.

In other business, council heard from Rich Collins, typically with the Positive Growth Alliance, but this time appearing as president of Delaware Youth Opportunities, Inc., requesting $100,000 for a multi-state basketball tournament.

Collins appeared with Duane Coverdale and described how the Bay Ball Classic Invitational Basketball Tournament would be administered.

The tournament will take over where Slam Dunk to the Beach left off two years ago (after a one-year lull). It pits 32 high school teams against one another, Dec. 26 through 30, at Cape Henlopen High School.

The event has been an economic boon to the beach area during a relatively quiet period of the off-season. Collins said the University of Delaware had developed estimates placing financial benefits to local hotels and outlet stores near $3 million.

“If the program isn’t started again this year, it will probably be lost,” Collins added. There’d been questions associated with prior tournaments’ business plans, but he said the Delaware Community Foundation would be providing an extra layer of oversight and administration for the Bay Ball Classic.

Stickels said they’d already approved $15,000 for the tournament in the fiscal 2006 budget, and the remaining $85,000 would come from the Economic Stimulus Program funding.

This would be a one-shot revitalization for the tournament, he emphasized — they wouldn’t be able to count on continued support at this level. Council President Finley Jones added, “Hopefully, you’ll be able to get out in front a little bit and by next year, you’ll be up and running.”

Council voted unanimously to approve the expenditure, with conditions — the $100,000 can be used only for transportation for the players, hotel rooms, meals and scholarships.

In other grant requests, council approved $28,000 for the West Rehoboth Community Land Trust (to accommodate 26 duplexes) and another $28,000 for the Milford Development Corporation (for 14 housing units in Ellendale).

Finance Director David Baker outlined a loan agreement for $250,000 in infrastructure improvements at the Ross Business Park in Seaford, also out of the Economic Stimulus Program.

Stickels noted more than 100 employees at that location, and suggested the state would ultimately benefit more than anyone from the initiative — but the economic stimulus program would be one of the first to go if the county lost its share of real estate transfer tax revenues, he said.

And finally, Stickels regretfully informed Council of the passing of long-time County Planning and Zoning Commission Chair John “Jack” Allen. Allen had served on the commission for nearly 35 years.