Hocker draws a good crowd for coffee

Hocker’s Deli — not the place one might expect to find a rather substantial public meeting, but more than 30 area residents turned out for an Aug. 31 meet-your-legislator forum, hosted by Rep. Gerald Hocker (38th District).

Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY: Rep. Gerald Hocker, left, speaks to interested residents.Coastal Point • SAM HARVEY:
Rep. Gerald Hocker, left, speaks to interested residents.

A great location for coffee and doughnuts, a little less ideal for conversation what with the hum from several industrial-sized refrigerators in the immediate vicinity, but everyone made do. Hocker approached individuals who had questions, listened and answered, then turned and recapped for people who couldn’t hear.

He started with his own comments on a range of topics, including potential changes at the Millville Emergency Center (Route 26, next to Food Lion).

Access to medical care year-round remains one of Hocker’s continuing goals. To date, the local satellite of Lewes-based Beebe Medical Center hasn’t remained open long past Labor Day, and many years, they’ve closed outright.

According to representatives from Beebe, past experiments with staying open later in the year haven’t shown enough of a need to justify the financial impact, especially in light of much-needed renovations and expansions at the hospital in Lewes.

Toward a compromise solution, Hocker has been working to bring a special licensing option to the table, whereby Beebe could drop the 24/7 emergency room designation in Millville and instead run a walk-in medical facility year-round.

The over-65 population had doubled in recent years, Hocker pointed out. “We’re now one of 10 states where the over-65 population is greater than the under-18 population — we’re going to have to expand our medical facilities,” he said. “And Beebe certainly recognizes that.”

One possible option might be a move toward Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computed Tomography (CT) Scan services in Millville. There’s a growing need for these services, which might better support year-round operating costs.

However, there’s another wrinkle — the manner in which the Millville Emergency Center has been shoehorned into the surrounding mall. “They’ve decided to do something major in Millville, but I’m afraid Beebe doesn’t have enough land to keep it at its present location,” Hocker said.

They will continue to close on Labor Day every year, pending future developments.

Hocker moved on to the Assawoman Canal dredging project, something he’s been advocating for since he first hit the political campaign trail, back in 2002.

It’s been delayed and delayed again, due in part to internal mix-ups at the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), and due in part to active opposition from the Sierra Club.

Supporters consider the dredging a maintenance project, and long overdue — opponents say it’s reverted to a natural state since the most recent dredging (late 1950s) and should be left that way.

Hocker once again recalled the days of his youth, swimming in waters much deeper than they are today — deep enough to dive from any of the three bridges spanning the canal.

The bridges at Cedar Neck and Muddy Neck roads were built in the early 1930s, and the one at Route 26 was built in 1928, according to the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT).

The wooden timbers had begun to seriously deteriorate by the 1980s — DelDOT’s Kelly Pitts noted a newspaper clipping from 1984, calling the bridge on Cedar Neck the worst in the state.

Sen. George Howard Bunting (20th District) pushed the state to replace them, and accomplished that goal, between 1985 and 1988.

The one on Cedar Neck Road crosses a deep cut, and wasn’t raised at the time — the other two were raised by 8 feet.

Hocker recognized the negotiations to obtain those clearances, leading to settlement based in part on what size boats should or shouldn’t be able to pass through. That work had impacted several properties, requiring people to relocate — but nearly 20 years later, the project remained stalled just shy of the next step, Hocker said.

He introduced epilogue language in this year’s bond bill to advance the project. That move raised questions, an Environmental Appeals Board ruling on the matter still pending at the time of the bond bill’s passage.

However, Hocker said he’d received an opinion via the Office of the Controller General, from the Attorney General’s office, signed off and approved by Assistant State Solicitor Malcolm Cobin, indicating the move had been “above board.”

Finally, Hocker touched on his continuing push for an expanded Ocean View Post Office, and the discussion turned to question-and-answer, on any number of topics.

Discussion turned to private water utilities, and Hocker explained the battle for territory currently being waged between Artesian and Tidewater. Artesian had recently conceded they would no longer calculate public support for an Artesian Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN) using letters that, if residents didn’t send back, counted as “yes” votes, Hocker said.

He said the Public Service Commission was keeping the pressure on Tidewater, too.

Denton Woods resident Steve Girard noted ongoing squabbles with Tidewater. The neighborhood had been receiving a bill for water lines on the opposite side of the road, and Girard said he’d been back and forth between county and state trying to get the matter resolved.

Finally, Tidewater needed something from the homeowners, he said (an easement of some kind), and their concerns were suddenly addressed, he said. – each resident was finally receiving a rebate, between $700 to $800 apiece.

Girard credited Hocker for working toward intergovernmental cooperation, but suggested a state/county disconnect was exacerbating infrastructure shortfalls.

“In my impression, we have no infrastructure,” he said. “The county is developing and developing and developing — it’s now being forced by an engine of greed.”

He referred to the tragedy along the Gulf Coast, and suggested locals could easily find themselves in a similar situation if a hurricane ever made landfall along Sussex County.

Hocker once again noted missed opportunities back in the 1970s, when DelDOT officials had come to the area with plans for road upgrades and had been forced to back down because of public opposition.

“You can put the blame on the county, the state — and the local,” he said. “We have to work together, and if we do, it’s going to get done a lot faster, and it’s sure going to be cheaper.”