Five Questions for County Executive Candidates

Three of the four candidates address major issues facing New Castle County

The Sept. 13 primary election is almost upon us. Two of the more important offices on the ballot are mayor of Wilmington and New Castle County executive. Whoever wins the Democratic primary election for mayor will be the winner in the November general election, since no Republican has registered for the primary. It’s a slightly different picture in the race for county executive, where two Democrats and two Republicans are contending.

Last month, as a service to our readers, Out & About posed five questions to the eight Democratic mayoral candidates. In the same spirit, this month we submitted five questions to the candidates for county executive.

Three candidates responded. Republican Barry Nahe declined to submit answers. Below are the questions, followed by the candidates’ answers, in the order in which they responded. Candidates were asked to limit each answer to 200 words or fewer. Where they did not comply, space limitations required us to edit the answers.

1. What is the most important issue facing the next New Castle County executive?
2. What is your philosophy on county land development, and please provide specific strategies you have for
preserving open space/land?
3. How, specifically, do you plan to create more jobs in New Castle County?
4. Under your leadership, how can NCC become a safer walkable and bike-able county?
5. The City of Wilmington has significant challenges. As chief executive, how do you plan to help?

Mark_pic_front_view_croppedMark Blake (R)

1. What is the most important issue facing the next New Castle County Executive?

One of the most important issues the next County Executive will face will be a dwindling tax base coupled with the ever-increasing pension fund costs and health care expenses. The County Pension fund is growing faster than the revenue sources the County has and these increased costs will eventually exceed the County’s ability to fully fund these critical obligations if something isn’t done soon. I would propose that we freeze the current pension fund so that those already in the system are protected and will be guaranteed to receive the benefits they were promised and expect. We would then implement a new pension or retirement (401k) plan for all new hires that would include more employee participation and various contribution levels and options, as is done in the private sector. To accomplish this, I would work with the existing pension fund panel and outside pension fund experts to ensure that any plan presented would be effective and fair, while making certain that the new fund would provide adequate returns for new County employees and be sustainable for generations of future County employees.

2. What is your philosophy on county land development, and please provide specific strategies you have for preserving open space/land?

The current County Executive’s “Farmland Preservation” debacle/sweetheart deal underscores the necessity for NCC to work more closely with the successful State Farmland Preservation program. First, NCC does NOT even have a Farmland or Open Space Preservation program, and spending in excess of $27,000 per acre of taxpayers’ money to “purchase development rights only” does not preserve those farms from future development. I would work with the state to earmark County funds that would go to the state preservation program specifically for the purchase of NCC Farmlands that could continue to operate as a productive farm, while being protected from development. For sensitive areas, the County can work with developers to provide more open space offsets for development projects and utilize federal programs and grants to obtain funds for purchasing other land as natural open spaces. During my 13 years with the Greater Hockessin Area Development Association, we have preserved more historic buildings and far exceeded the NCC open space requirements for developments by working with developers and builders in an open manner. County Council and the Land Use Department have commented that “this is how land use projects should be done, by working with the local civic groups.” The County should not be picking lands based on politics and friendships; it should provide County Preservation Funds to the state and let the state administer the program for the benefit of all. The price being offered to two influential farmers is more than six times what other similar size farms have been paid for true preservation.

3. How, specifically, do you plan to create more jobs in New Castle County?

County government can’t “create jobs,” especially private sector jobs. Rather, the County government must create the right environment to attract companies here. Only the expansion of existing companies and new companies locating here can create more jobs. I’ll work with experts, bring ideas that foster a balanced approach for new and existing companies. The Uniform Development Code (UDC) has been in place for almost 20 years with less than 100 minor changes to the process. Antiquated land use policies have adversely affected our economy; we need to update the UDC to represent ALL stake holders while protecting the environment. By implementing Targeted Development Zones (TDZs) we can have growth while making sure special waivers aren’t given to political insiders that will worsen existing traffic or environmental issues. TDZs will ensure that new or redevelopment takes place at locations where infrastructure already exists. We need to revamp the current UDC to address the Commercial Regional (CR) zoning classification. Using time-proven “Best Practices” from the business world, we’ll identify all the available vacant, abandoned, and “brown-field” parcels and combine that with the latest traffic studies to determine what areas could support a project. By doing that, we could react more quickly to attract projects and jobs. Simply put, our County government hasn’t been responsive to the needs of our residents or our businesses. I’ll develop a comprehensive plan for economic development that will seek new businesses and bring them to the County by streamlining the UDC. My 25 years of experience in the business community positions me to help make the County attractive to businesses.

4. Under your leadership, how can NCC become a safer walkable and bike-able county?

The UDC contains the framework for transforming NCC into a bike- and pedestrian-friendly County. The best way to provide for the necessary infrastructure such as sidewalks and bike paths is when a parcel of land is being proposed for development or redevelopment. With a revised UDC, we can change the available options that developers can select to include in their projects and require that multi-use pathways are part of the project, thus ensuring that new communities will have the amenities that residents are asking for and look for when purchasing homes. We would also extend these upgrades to include all commercial and office development projects, so that eventually the County could work with the state programs to “backfill” older communities with these same amenities that will eventually link entire swaths of communities with a bike-able, walkable path system. We would continue to work with WILMAPCO, DELDOT and Bike Delaware and the local community civic groups to form a master plan that would identify gaps in the existing pathways and work to connect those gaps over time.

5. The City of Wilmington has significant challenges. As Chief Executive, how do you plan to help?

We must address the problems keeping Wilmington from becoming an economic driver for the County and state. I will work with the city’s elected officials and the business community to address the lack of good paying jobs and work to attract new businesses to the city while helping businesses already there. There are many opportunities that haven’t been explored by city officials. The Riverfront is one example of success, but it could be an even bigger success if obstacles from present and past administrations were honestly addressed. Wilmington’s location adjacent to the I-95 corridor provides an opportunity to develop a massive, regional complex for both sports and entertainment events, providing hundreds of jobs. Reducing the serious crime in the city, without the need to appease egos, will foster interest from investors that are needed to back such ventures. County Police and City Police can better work together to implement the Predictive Policing model that has helped NCC reduce crime. There also exist ways to help reduce the cost of operating 911 service that would reduce the response time for serious crimes by allowing a state, County or city officer to respond. Of course this would require a more formalized vehicle dispatch tracking system and plan for all agencies. Volunteer fire companies have been using a similar concept for decades, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to work out such a system across NCC and the city.

FullSizeRenderMatt Meyer (D)

1. What is the most important issue facing the next New Castle County Executive?

Our County faces serious challenges: reducing violent crime, building an economy that works for everyone and getting our financial house in order. There is no reason why our County should not have a fair and functioning government that produces robust economic growth, sensible land use policies and safe streets. Our County’s leadership, through its cronyism and self-indulgence, has held us back from truly growing, prospering and achieving our true potential. We can do better. It starts with leadership, honesty, transparency and checks and balances. We must put an end to backroom dealing, the old insiders’ game of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Residents need to be able to trust our County government and believe that our tax dollars are being spent wisely and sensibly.

2. What is your philosophy on county land development, and please provide specific strategies you have for preserving open space/land?

Our land use process and department are broken, and both have lost the credibility of neighborhood associations and developers. The Planning and Land Use Departments must be re-invented and run by professionals with substantial training and experience. Neighbors must have a significant say in how projects proceed. While respecting private property rights, the richest developer in the room cannot dictate the futures of our communities. It is important that there are development projects moving forward in the county, and that they create quality jobs for moderate income people. In collaboration with the state, an effective planning and land use process will produce more reasonable outcomes and likely less contentious court battles. The solution is to find common ground on each specific project, emphasizing mediation and developer-neighborhood conversations early in the process, rather than later stage adversarial court battles. It is important that the public has input into how their neighborhoods grow and change.

3. How, specifically, do you plan to create more jobs in New Castle County?

There are three ways a government can facilitate the creation of private sector jobs. We can lure large companies here, usually with tax breaks or payments of taxpayer cash. We can grow the businesses that already exist. We can start new businesses. Studies show that collaborating with businesses that are here to grow here and developing ecosystems and geographic hubs to start new businesses are the most effective ways to invest taxpayer resources to create jobs. Having started two successful businesses of my own, I understand what entrepreneurs need to succeed. And I will make sure that entrepreneurs are given every opportunity to succeed in our County. In addition, I believe entrepreneurship is an innovative strategy to approach the barriers to employment of individuals previously convicted of felonies. Not everyone is wired to be an entrepreneur. But for many who are not given a second chance, startup companies can be one channel where those convicted of felonies make their own second chance. I would eagerly approach the federal government, the state government, city governments and private partners, for example, to create a Second Chance Innovation Fund that would provide a certain amount of funding and legal and accounting assistance to selected startup businesses created by those with prior police records.

4. Under your leadership, how can NCC become a safer walkable and bike-able county?

New Castle County currently makes its land use and planning decisions based on an automobile-oriented society. That is not appropriate for 2017. That is not appropriate for a County that needs to attract millennials to re-invent our economy. As someone who spent five years as a bike commuter, I believe strongly in multi-modal transportation systems. By integrating walkable and bikeable systems into our planning and land use governance, we will lay the foundations to build a transportation system that works for everyone. Furthermore, we need to sit down immediately with the state Department of Transportation and the cities of Wilmington, Newark, New Castle and Middletown to insure there are safe bikeable routes for commuters coming from each direction—north, south, east and west, into our largest cities and towns.

5. The City of Wilmington has significant challenges. As Chief Executive, how do you plan to help?

Wilmington’s struggles are our struggles. We are losing an entire generation of young people to crime, drugs and violence. County government must do much more to collaborate with city government to improve public safety and economic development. In 2012, Tom Gordon ran side-by-side with Dennis Williams, promising to fix the city’s crime problem. But once in office, Mr. Gordon forgot that promise. Crime in Wilmington is worse than ever, and the County’s efforts to stem the violence have been virtually non-existent. There are mothers and fathers losing their children on the streets of Wilmington and across our County nearly every week. That is not acceptable. I will ensure that the County provides much more support to Wilmington, so that we can end the horrific violence. We will use prior research, including the CDC Report, the Public Safety Strategy Commission Report, and the Criminal Justice Council’s Recidivism In Delaware report to address violence at its roots. There are numerous vacant housing and other issues in which collaboration should improve. To attract employers, we need to attract a talented workforce. The County should work with municipalities like Wilmington and Newark to encourage development that makes our County an appealing place for college graduates. This includes enhanced multimodal transportation, walkable communities, quality apartments and condos, green space, and new restaurants, bars and cafes in downtown areas.

gordon1Tom Gordon (D)

1. What is the most important issue facing the next New Castle County Executive?

Job creation and maintenance, a key to improving residents’ quality of life.

2. What is your philosophy on county land development, and please provide specific strategies you have for preserving open space/land?

Development must be handled in an orderly fashion, targeting established growth areas with adequate infrastructure as well as “brownfield” redevelopment or reuse of previously occupied sites. I spearheaded the first comprehensive overhaul of land-use laws since their first enactment in 1954, largely to prevent overdevelopment and preserve open space—and have led land use revisions ever since, also improving Department of Land Use operation especially to involve the community from the start of the process. We are doing our best to preserve farmland—despite political opposition—and provide excellent stewardship as well as expansion of county-owned open space/parkland. One of the top accomplishments of my administration is creation of Glasgow Park, serving an area with more than 140,000 residents who had no regional-scale outdoor recreation, in the process preventing development of the site, which was proposed for intense development with destruction of the historic barn we recently renovated. The park’s popularity provides dramatic proof that I am aware of and working to meet residents’ need for open space.

3. How, specifically, do you plan to create more jobs in New Castle County?

Our multi-faceted approach emphasizes retaining existing jobs—such as the county’s DuPont Co. incentive helping retain about 1,700 jobs—and acting as an incubator/advocate for small-medium start-ups such as the Delaware Board of Trade. We assist companies to locate here, such as Incyte. Its location process took about seven months and, in addition to the jobs it provides, the company revitalized the long-vacant John Wanamaker’s building at Augustine Cut-Off. Of course, our largest effort is to develop three port sites in partnership with the state and others, expected to create tens of thousands of jobs that will support the county’s middle class over generations to come. New Castle County also provides programs to retrain residents for new types of work and summer youth employment that gives valuable job experience to help our younger residents develop positive workplace habits and references for future jobs.

4. Under your leadership, how can NCC become a safer walkable and bike-able county?

Under my administration’s first two terms as well as this one, I have worked to ensure plans for new developments are both walkable and bikeable. We have installed uncounted miles of walking, jogging and bike paths throughout the county, while encouraging safety through community outreach that includes such programs as our annual summer Safety Town to educate children to be safe pedestrians, bicyclists and later, safer drivers. Our New Castle County Police also do considerable pedestrian, bicycle and driving safety outreach.

5. The City of Wilmington has significant challenges. As Chief Executive, how do you plan to help?

As we work to increase employment, I will continue the unprecedented level of law enforcement assistance already being provided under my leadership. We have shared new policies, procedures and technology along with our experience creating our Fusion Center and Targeted Analytical Policing System, cutting crime in the county by 16.4 percent. We gave computers when WPD fell behind technologically, provided vital backup/support on critical occasions Chief Bobby Cummings could detail and, more than once, lent a substantial number of officers for periods up to several months. We share information regularly and have conducted many joint operations on offenses from prostitution to violent crime, collaborated seeking grant funding, cooperated on joint efforts and conducted patrols in the city including mobile/mounted units. Our SWAT team assists with uncounted warrants, last week helping arrest many indicted suspects. The County—also providing paramedic service in the city—was the state’s first major agency to adopt overdose-reversing Narcan to save lives and recently began our revolutionary HERO HELP program offering treatment instead of arrest. That builds on our Heroin Alert outreach and my $500,000 grant last year for treatment-oriented heroin/opioid awareness, producing 3.3+ million online ads and still referring addicts and families for help.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.