South Bethany hears from Sharp Energy

Sharp Energy’s Eric Mays and Ron Patrick attended this month’s South Bethany Town Council meeting, Nov. 10, to answer questions about propane service. Specifically, 1) did Sharp ever plan to extend the existing mains to serve new areas around town, 2) if not, why not and 3) for people who’d never received gas service, why hadn’t Sharp refunded “meter set” fees charged when the company negotiated the installation of a underground storage facility two years ago?

Council Member Jay Headman assured the company representatives this wasn’t meant to be an attack but merely a follow-up on questions he’d received. However, he did chafe a bit at what Mays had to report.

“Our plans are to continue to hook up people who are already on the line,” Mays stated at the outset. “We have no plans to extend the mains.”

But Headman remembered Sharp selling residents on the idea of an underground propane storage facility near town hall and therefore near the Cat Hill section of town, by suggesting they might get some use out of it. “Now, I’m hearing it’s not worth it,” he said.

Mays also downplayed the number of Cat Hill respondents who’d indicated (in a 2003 survey) they’d be interested in gas service, either immediately or within the next couple years. Headman corrected his read on the numbers — combined categories, fully 49 percent of respondents had expressed interest, he pointed out.

That wasn’t the same as 49 percent of all residents, Mays said, but as Headman again countered, surveying by definition indicated a random sampling. And 38 percent of all residents had filled out their questionnaires, which Headman considered a rather stellar response rate for a survey.

Regardless, Mays reminded everyone the survey had been primarily for Sharp’s information, not to dictate any responsibility. When plotted on a map, the residents who’d indicated interest were just too spread out — “It’s not economical, so we have no short-term or long-term plans for expansion,” he said. “I have shareholders I’m accountable to, and I can’t go out and make a bad investment.”

Mayor Gary Jayne asked what percentage of interested residents it would take, to make Cat Hill worthwhile, but Mays said it changed every day.

“There’s no flat number,” he said. The percentages didn’t reflect different levels of use — some families might use gas for their water heaters, or to heat their homes, while others might only use propane for their kitchen stove, or for a gas log in the fireplace.

As far as the $75 meter set fees, Mays said he’d reviewed the materials and found five residents who’d paid, but neither hooked up nor received a “temporary” aboveground tank.

Sharp had refunded those fees earlier that same week, he said.

Presently, Mays said the company had roughly 140 customers on central gas, with another 30 or so slated to connect, and nearly 40 aboveground tanks that they filled on a regular basis.

Headman asked him why people with aboveground tanks needed meters, and Mays said the metering facilitated regular top-offs, rather than sporadic refills of a completely drained tank, and the associated hefty gas bill.

Tank or main, Mays said everyone would continue to enjoy the below-market rates negotiated when South Bethany agreed to let Sharp install their tanks, for several years yet.

However, there was a question from the audience regarding one of the major selling points back in 2003 — at that time, council had suggested aboveground tanks were less desirable than underground mains. Hurricane debris could theoretically drive the tanks from their foundations, sending them knocking around in the flood. (And while they were typically hidden from view, some residents had suggested a tank in everyone’s back yard was less aesthetically pleasing than the underground alternative.)

But Jayne said changeover had always been voluntary. As it turned out, many residents simply hadn’t chosen to make the switch, he pointed out.

In other business, Jayne reported good news and bad news, regarding town finances. He said this year’s rental tax revenues were in, and it turned out they’d garnered $20,000 more than council had budgeted for, so that was good news.

“The bad news is, the (real estate) transfer tax is still out on the table,” Jayne said.

With this year’s budget crunch at the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT), a state taskforce has been looking into possibly taking for the state’s use some of the transfer tax revenues the towns presently use in their own budgets.

Local Sen. George Howard Bunting (20th District) has said he thinks it unlikely in the extreme that state legislators would actually try to push such an unpopular measure. However, Jayne said the topic remained front-and-center at Sussex County Association of Towns (SCAT) meetings.

In other business, Town Manager Mel Cusick advised everyone he’d forgotten to report the arrival of the town’s new snowplow at last month’s meeting, but they had received it. And already used it, too — to clear sand from Ocean Drive after the passage of the recent nor’easter.

Cusick thanked colleagues for their work on recent applications to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in pursuit of a more favorable flood insurance rating for South Bethany.

“They put in a lot of work, and, hopefully, this will get everyone some flood insurance reductions in the future,” he said.

Police Chief Joe Deloach said he’d again driven the hurricane evacuation route, and DelDOT now had all the proper signs up and pointing the right way. Deloach said the police department had procured a generator, via a $3,000 grant, and was expecting another grant from the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, for $30,000, for another generator to power town hall and the maintenance department in the event of an outage.

He said the police department had also recently received nearly $25,000 in grant funding from Sussex County Council, for computers, radars and a Tazer unit. But that last item, most people would probably consider a mixed blessing — Deloach said police officers had to submit themselves as guinea pigs before receiving authorization to carry the weapon, which uses electricity to non-lethally subdue a target.

He characterized the training as “a unique experience.”

Council Member Richard Ronan reported on the recent finalization of a joint U.S. House/Senate appropriations bill including $3 million for the Bethany/South Bethany beach replenishment project. This will include a major dune rebuild, like the project the Army Corps of Engineers designed for Fenwick Island.

And finally, Council Member John Fields presented the 99.99-percent complete update to the town’s Comprehensive Development Plan (CDP). Fields said he felt the document was ready to go, but council voted to give it a final once-over at the next workshop, scheduled for Nov. 17.