South Bethany continues work on environmental issues

South Bethany officials are making their efforts to improve the town’s environment official. The town council this week voted 6-0 to adopt a resolution in support of the town’s forest canopy density goal, which aims to reach 18 to 20 percent coverage in the next 20 years.

The Dec. 9 resolution comes as part of the town’s $24,000 grant from the Department of Agriculture, which has helped pay for 88 new trees to be installed along the highway inside town limits as part of beautification and water-quality improvement efforts. The town matched the grant funds with in-kind services, noted Councilwoman Sue Callaway at the Dec. 9 council meeting, while Town Manager Mel Cusick has recently secured another $50,000 in grant funding from the Delaware Department of Transportation for further improvements along Route 1.

South Bethany currently has about 16.32 percent coverage by tree canopy, according to the Delaware Department of Agriculture, and the efforts to reach 18 to 20 percent coverage in the next two decades are aimed at further demonstrating the town’s commitment to preserving forest as it receives and continues to apply for additional grant funding for similar projects.

Callaway said that 16.32 percent figure does not include the 88 new trees, which should now bring the coverage to about 17.32 percent – nearly the level required under the resolution. She said state officials were aware that the town has limited areas for planting trees and had worked with town officials to come up with a reasonable goal of 18 to 20 percent coverage. There is, however, no penalty should the town not reach that goal.

The town’s Beautification Committee, which Callaway heads, has been responsible for some of the tree planting work, as well as the new Adopt-A-Canal program that has seen nine canal ends improved by volunteers in the last year, with two additional canal-end projects expected to be completed in the spring.

Callaway said she hopes to continue to expand the scope of the volunteers working on such projects and is recognizing the work of current volunteers through a recognition wall on the committee’s Web site. She also recognized on Dec. 9 the work of the town’s public works staff, praising them for having gotten up the holiday decorations so quickly after Thanksgiving, as well as town staff for working on grants for bio-retention projects designed to keep pollutants out of the town’s canals, as well as to beautify the area.

The Beautification Committee’s Nov. 16 meeting marked the beginning of a blueprint for improvements along Ocean Drive, Callaway reported, with three new trash-can planters already in place and 17 expected to be in place by May. The planters are being built in-house and put in place as they are completed. They will be painted in the spring.

She thanked the South Bethany Property Owners Association (SBPOA) for a $3,500 grant toward materials for that project. Additionally, Callaway said Sussex County officials had approved the concept for new signage on Ocean Drive, with the committee to be looking at shapes and colors for the signs, with plans to have them in place in the spring.

With some of the group’s efforts focused on aspects such as canal water quality improvements, Callaway noted that members wanted to ask for a change to the committee’s name.

“We feel like our mission has changed, our focus has expanded, and that’s reflected in many of the projects we’re working on. We’re aimed at enhancing the community. ‘Beautification’ doesn’t quite depict all that we’re doing,” she said. “It’s frequently equated with just flowers. I’m certainly not diminishing the effect of flowers, and beautification is part of our scope, but we do not feel it is our entire focus.”

Callaway said the committee members had agreed unanimously on one of the ideas on a list of suggested new names and was formally requesting their name be changed to the Community Enhancement Committee.

While the committee members were in agreement, Mayor Jay Headman said he would like to discuss the change at a workshop before holding a vote, and Councilwoman Pat Voveris said she would like to have the new scope of the committee stated before any change. The council expected to discuss the issue at their January workshop.

In related news, Councilman George Junkin offered thanks to the town’s 40 oyster gardeners, its volunteer water-quality monitors and members of his Canal Water Quality Committee. He also reported that work was continuing on the town’s northernmost bio-retention area, which has not been draining well due to a layer of clay soil. He said that if efforts to fix the problem don’t work, the area will likely be converted into a wet pond, as the existing dry ponds are only supposed to be wet for 48 to 72 hours after rainfall.

Junkin noted that the committee is trying to get a grant for similar areas on the east side of Route 1, which would extend from Middlesex to the south end of South Bethany. They are also seeking potential grants from the EPA for a program to place diffusers in the town’s canals, following up on efforts by the SBPOA to obtain a grant for a pilot program.

The diffusers are reported to improve dissolved oxygen levels in the water, help water circulate and help decrease harmful bacteria.

“I think we have a good chance of getting it,” he said, noting that he was still pushing for the Town to commit to doing such a project with its own funds. “We want the money in place so that if we don’t get the grant we can still do the project.” He said any EPA grant funding wouldn’t come until the summer of 2012.

Council considered new ordinances

Also on Dec. 9, the council held a second reading of Ordinance 158-11, amending Chapter 42 of the town code, Building Construction. Headman noted that the town’s code enforcement official had discovered that the fine in question had not been updated in the code from $300 to $500 when it was previously changed. A third reading and possible vote on the ordinance will be held at a future council meeting.

A second reading of Ordinance 159-11, amending Chapter 145 of the code, was also held last Friday. The ordinance allows permeable paving to be installed within town right-of-ways, particularly as an aid to handicapped persons.

Junkin said he had received comments the day prior, suggesting the ordinance spell out numbers involved. Junkin said he planned to review the suggestions with Councilman Jim Gross and see where that idea made sense, ahead of the next council workshop, at which the council could finalize the ordinance for its third reading and a vote.

The council also held a first reading of Ordinance 160-11, amending Chapter 6, Contracts and Bidding, to include bidding monetary amounts. Voveris said she had received correspondence from an attorney who had noted a discrepancy between the town charter, the proposed ordinance and standard practice as to who signs contracts for the town.

Cusick said the town charter specifies that the mayor signs contracts, while the ordinance says the town manager does. He noted that the town probably didn’t have a town manager when the charter was adopted. Wording to the effect of the mayor signing contracts, or the town manager in his absence was suggested.

Headman, though, noted that a charter change may well be required to resolve the conflicts, and he suggested the council look at the issue at a workshop. Councilman John Fields pointed out that the code actually requires multiple signatures for contacts of more than $10,000, including the town attorney, town manager, town treasurer (who is not required to be a council member) and mayor.

Former councilman Bob Cestone said the longer list of signatories had been put in the code in an effort to require multiple officials to review contracts and thus reduce the potential for impropriety or any claims thereof, and that it had been removed from the charter to allow dollar amounts involved to be changed more easily, since the process for changing the town charter is involved and lengthy.

Fields said he would bring a revised version to the council’s January workshop for review. The change may require both a change to the town charter and one to the town code.

While the council was on the topic, Councilman Al Rae asked whether bidding companies are required to have a mercantile license in the town in order to bid. Cusick said companies working for the town were not required to have a license, since they would just pass any additional cost from the requirement back to the town.

Town’s financial picture cautiously optimistic

Also on Dec. 9, Voveris reported on the town’s finances, saying that the town was $24,000 ahead of the 2011 fiscal year on rental tax. “It’s good that we’re over,” she noted, pointing out that the figure was at 104 percent of budgeted amounts, compared to 106 percent the prior year. For the 2011 fiscal year, the town had budgeted $435,000 in rental tax, while that figure is increased to $470,000 in the 2012 fiscal year.

The news was not quite as positive for transfer tax revenues, with November’s revenues down 28 percent from the budgeted figure and 19 percent from the same period last year. However, Voveris noted that, while there has been $4 million in sales reported this fall, the properties in question hadn’t seen settlements yet. “I believe it will go up,” she added.

Voveris said all town departments remain within their budgets, with revenue at 81 percent of the budgeted figure and expenses at 65 percent of that figure. Revenue is down 1.64 percent over last year, but Voveris said she also expected that to change. Rental tax has actually increased by 5 percent. Mercantile licenses are up. And, while expenses are up 7 percent due to Hurricane Irene and gas and electric costs, Voveris said the expected FEMA/DEMA grant related to the storm was still to come in.

Headman was cautiously optimistic about the town’s financial picture.

“We have three major sources of revenue: rental tax, which is $24,000 to the good; property tax, which is a consistent number; and transfer tax, which is always the question for us,” he said. “This year, we made a conservative budget on an estimated $300,000 in transfer tax. The year before, it was $370,000. I am concerned. It’s very clear, looking at the economy, that we’re still not out of the woods, and I’m still a little concerned that we are behind now, but I believe we should come in close to that $300,000. But we don’t know that. We’re not out of the woods.”

Voveris also reported that the Budget & Finance Committee, at its November meeting, had discussed the possibility of offering a temporary mercantile license, which would potentially be offered for a 30-day period for $30, with only one granted each year to a given business. The business would then be credited the $30 cost if they decided to purchase a full license within that 30 days.

She said the committee had also discussed proposed changes in the town’s permit and fee structure for new construction, changing the cost from $2.30 per square foot to 3 percent of the construction cost. She said such a change would have added $52,000 in revenue for the town from March 2010 to December 2012.

The committee also recommended the town request new bids for auditor’s services at the completion of the current contract, which is about to expire after six years. They also discussed investment ideas and developing an investment policy for the town, as well as budget projections with a recommended 2.5 percent inflationary factor, to ensure the town won’t fall short on the replacement cost of its property.

Finally, Voveris said the committee had discussed the town manager’s project list, which was set to be discussed at length this week.

Headman noted that the townsfolk’s recently completed surveys are “being taken very seriously.” He said the council has been going through the suggestions to look at areas of town services needing improvement and have focused individual items at their workshops.

This Friday, he said, the council would be looking at the items on the improvements list and their potential costs, asking if they felt the individual improvements should be made, and, if so, when and how they would be financed. “This has been an invaluable tool for us. We should probably do it again,” he said.

Also on Dec. 9:

• SBPD PFC Patrick Wiley reported on some of the activities of the SBPD in November, which included property checks of previously burglarized properties, turning off of water that had been left on, assistance to the Fenwick Island police, handling a dispute between a contractor and builder, dealing with a property-damage hit-and-run collision and addressing a report of a leaky fire hydrant. In that case, Wiley said, it was later found that the hydrant had been left open to help flush the system.

• Wiley also resolved a local mystery, revealing that several “explosions” heard in the area in November were, in fact, sonic booms from military aircraft flying overhead.

• Headman praised Wiley last Friday, too, noting his assistance to a would-be marathoner who had been injured during a run from Fenwick Island to South Bethany. He said Wiley had driven the man back to Fenwick Island, leading the man to write the town about how impressed he had been with the officer.

• Headman reported that a suggestion had been made through the town to the Assawoman Canal Trail Team to label any bridges over the canal with their location, as a navigation aid for boaters on the canal.

• Resident Tom Roach noted his concerns about pine trees growing out over the town’s canals. He said they keep pontoon boats from traversing the canals. Junkin pointed out that there is already an ordinance in the town that requires that trees around the canal not be permitted to grow more than 1 to 2 feet from the canal edge in the height range up to 12 feet above the ground.

Headman said such issues and their locations need to be reported to the town for enforcement. Callaway said the report was timely, since the trees overhanging town right-of-ways were being cut at that time.

• Headman also reported having presented a resolution recognizing outgoing County Administrator David Baker, who is retiring at the end of the year.

• Headman reported that a committee working on the restriction of the roadway at Black Gum and Kent Avenue had recommended reducing the access restrictions to from 7 to 8:30 a.m. only. He said the council agreed with that recommendation and would be instituting it in May, ahead of the 2012 summer season, with a traffic study set for July.

• Cusick reported the completion of sand dredging and pumping on the beach in South Bethany, though replenishment dredging continues in Bethany Beach. He said he had tried unsuccessfully to get in touch with DNREC officials as to the completion timetable for dune and dune crossing repair now that the pumping is done, but that he assumed they would push the dune back up once the dredging pipe was removed, sometime after Bethany’s pumping phase is complete.