February  9,  2011

Council agrees to pay a portion
of social agency's utility bill

County Council agreed to pay $101,620 against the long standing arrearage on Police Athletic League of Delaware's utility bill to forestall for at least two months Delmarva Power's threat to "click the switch" and shut off lights and heat at the organization's facilities in Hockessin and Garfield Park. The total debt was reported to be in the neighborhood of $165,000.

Councilman Penrose Hollins, who sponsored an emergency ordinance to implement an agreement with the electricity and natural gas company, promised a quick effort to determine the future of county government's relationship with the nonprofit agency. He rejected, however, a proposal by Councilman Robert Weiner to put it into receivership or otherwise "transfer management" to the Department of Community Services.

The ordinance was enacted by an 11-to-two vote, one more than the 'supermajority' required to pass emergency legislation, after an amendment offered by Council president Tom Kovach was defeated by the same margin. Kovach and Weiner voted for the amendment and against the ordinance.

Referring to the facilities by their acronym as 'pal centers', Hollins and other Council members said the appropriation was necessary to prevent the sudden loss of significant services to needy children and families who depend on them. Most of the discussion centered around the Garfield Park location.

"For me, it's all about the kids and [their] having a safe place to go. ... I feel a bond with these children," said George Smiley. Jea Street said that "for some of the children the only meal they get is at the pal center."

After county auditor Robert Wasserbach presented a scathing report about the league's financial condition at an afternoon meeting of Council's finance committee on Feb. 8, Kovach proposed at Council's evening plenary session an amendment that would have reduced the appropriation to $50,000. He claimed that would be more "fiscally prudent" than committing the larger amount with no assurance that either sum can ever be recovered.

Hollins stressed that the money is to be paid directly to Delmarva Power and would not be considered a loan. It is hoped, he said, that it can be recovered though a revised agreement with the league for basing county-sponsored programs at its centers. The county "expects to be paid back in services," he said.

The ordinance calls for the money to come from the county's 'tax stabilization' reserve.

Provisions in the ordinance were the same as those contained in a previous ordinance that had been tabled. It was brought to Council as an emergency measure because that was the least complicated parliamentary way to do so without violating public notice requirements, Hollins explained.

"We just spent a million dollars so people over 18 could vote; [we can] spend 100 thousand so people under 18 can eat," Smiley said. That referred to the special election in January at which Kovach was elected.

Hollins was more direct in telling Kovach, "You may take a cavalier manner [to] doing what's right for the people of this county who have the most need." It would be irresponsible, he added, to jeopardize not only needed services but also plumbing, heating systems and other infrastructure at the centers as a result of losing heat during a severe winter. Hollins later apologized for the 'cavalier' reference, but let the rest of his comments stand.

County attorney Gregg Wilson stopped short of calling the amendment a deal killer, but he testified that there was no guarantee that Delmarva Power would accept the lower amount. "We were told in January that the decision had come from higher up [in the company]," he said. The $101,620 "was the position they demanded."

Wilson earlier told the finance committee that winter "is the time of the year when they know they have the most bargaining power."

The company declined an invitation to have an official come before Council to discuss the matter on the grounds that it is against company policy to talk about a customer's standing in a public gathering.

While it initially appeared that the increasingly emotional debate at both the committee meeting and the Council session could be signaling a breakdown in the traditional nonpartisan approach Council takes on significant issues, Janet Kilpatrick scotched that notion when she accused Kovach of undermining Wilson's efforts to negotiate an agreement with the company. Council had instructed him to do so. She, Kovach and Weiner are the only Republicans on the 13-member Council.

Tim Sheldon, the Council member whom Kovach defeated at the election, did not participate in the discussion.

What appeared to doom the amendment and assure passage of the ordinance were strong statements from two Council members who usually make their comments in a reserved manner. Bill Bell accused Kovach of failure to respond to the needs of residents of the Route 9 corridor between Wilmington and New Castle. "You -- all Council members -- were elected to serve the needs of all the people of the county," he said. Lisa Diller shouted that she supported the agreement because "we do have children and adults in both county programs and pal programs" at the centers who would be put at risk. But, she added, that she "will not vote another penny until we have a plan to go forward."

In a brief comment at the committee meeting, James Riggs, executive director of the league, said he didn't think that Wasserbach's audit "should be played out in the newspaper." Neither he nor anyone else attending the evening session availed themselves of the public comment portion of the meeting.

His audit, Wasserbach said, found the league with current assets of $37,000 and current  liabilities -- mostly unpaid bills -- of $374,000 at the end of fiscal 2010 last June 30. He said it had sufficient financial reserves to operate for six days, as opposed to the three to six months that is considered normal. Responding to a question from Street, Wasserbach said he found no indication of theft, fraud or other misconduct.

Weiner accused the league's board of wielding undue political influence with the county administration, noting that former county executive Tom Gordon is a member. Weiner also said that he had been approached by an organization -- which he did not identify -- able and willing to take over the league's function. He said Wilson had a conflict of interest because he also is acting chief administrative officer, the second-ranking position in County Executive Paul Clark's administration.

Hollins chided Weiner saying that the issue "has nothing to do with who your friends are and who are not your friends."

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