Delaware County sees progress on some goals, conflict on others | #schoolshooting


County Democrats solidified their hold on the Media Courthouse in the November general election. The effects of state mail-in ballot orders continued to play out as in the prior year, with Democrats declaring victory by Friday after mail-in ballots eroded Republican majorities at polling sites over three days.

County council candidates Kevin Madden and Richard Womack edged out Republicans Frank Agovino and Joseph F. Lombardo Jr., while open spots on the County Court of Common Pleas saw Democratic candidates Deborah Krull and Tinu Moss best Republicans Michael Ruggieri and Deborah Truscello. Incumbent row office holders prevailed against GOP challengers, with Sheriff Jerry Sanders defeating Lawrence E. Weigand III, Controller Joanne Phillips defeating Sherry Smyth and Register of Wills Rachel Ezzell Berry defending against David J. Bartholf.

Election Day also featured one special election to fill the vacant 164th House District. Democratic Rep. Margo Davidson of Upper Darby announced her resignation in July after being criminally charged with theft related to fraudulent per diem charges and campaign finance reporting violations, as well as hindering apprehension or prosecution for asking a witness to lie to the Office of the Attorney General. Sentencing is set for February.

Upper Darby School Board Vice President Gina H. Curry and Taylor Made Vets founder and operator Brian Sharif Taylor faced off in the special election. Curry emerged victorious in the contest, keeping the seat under Democratic control. She was sworn into office in mid-December.

The general election set in stone an upset from the May primary in the county’s only city. Ten years after Democrats took over the Chester, the party had its first outsider upset when engineer and Chester Matters blogger Stefan Roots ousted an endorsed candidate, incumbent William “Al” Jacobs. Roots came in second behind incumbent Portia West, edging out Jacobs in the race for two open positions.

The primary was not free from issues, followed 2020’s complications with the state-mandated pandemic protocols and move to paper ballots. Several precincts in multiple locations throughout the county allegedly ran out of ballots during the primary election, prompting county GOP officials to ask the District Attorney’s Office to investigate.

County council managed to push through several goals set out when they assumed control of county government in 2019. The party’s decades-long quest for a Delaware County Health Department topped the list, with the department set to get off the ground this month.

County council laid the groundwork for a physical plant in September 2020, approving a five-year lease at $185,400 annually on a 1,235-square foot facility at 125 Chester Ave. in Yeadon to serve as a community health center until the department came to fruition.

Council Vice Chairman Monica Taylor, Ph.D., opened the year with an estimated January 2022 launch date, keeping on track with the 18-month average to create a department despite pandemic-induced slowdowns which could have doubled the time. The first week of January, council approved a $75,000 contract with HIS Markit to conduct an economic impact study on the costs of setting up and operating the department. Another $15,000 was approved for additional work at the discretion of county Executive Director Howard Lazarus. Later in the month, 10 state legislators from Delaware, Chester, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties then wrote Gov. Tom Wolf asking for $10 million in state funding under the Local Health Administration Law to help shoulder costs. Along with efforts to secure funding, council put out a call for volunteers to staff a five-member Board of Health to oversee the department.

The Yeadon facility opened the first of February, providing COVID testing and vaccine distribution. A week later, council approved a resolution authorizing the establishment of the department, while County Deputy Solicitor Jonathan Lichenstein said during the meeting that the state Department of Health had already given its stamp of approval. Council announced its selections in mid-April for the five-member board, whittling down from 92 applicants.

Thirty percent of the costs are expected to come from new county taxes, with federal funding kicking in 29% in early years, settling on 15% later. State funds will range from 18 percent to 43 percent to start, then covering 36 percent when the department is fully matured. Salaries will make up 84 percent of costs, covering 67.5 full-time positions in the first phase and 83 full-time positions when fully staffed.

Paid staff began to fall into place come September starting with two nurse supervisors. Dr. Victor Alos Rullan came on board the following month October as the its first epidemiologist. The dentist, who holds one master’s degree in public health and another in epidemiology, worked as Chief Dental Officer for the National Health Corps for U.S. Health and Human Services in Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Puerto Rico before holding bureaucratic and consultancy positions in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.

The position of health director was next in line in November when the county Board of Health appointed Melissa Lyon, M.P.H., C.P.H., to take the top seat at the department. Lyon previously served as Public Health Director for the Erie County Department of Public Health. Lyon plans to implement the HHS Public Health 3.0 model, which is “designed to really engage the community, understand health disparities, taking into account socio-economic factors that result in health outcomes.”

The push for a health department played out as county government and residents dealt with ebbs and flows of coronavirus cases and vaccine rollouts. The county entered the year with a mixed bag on the coronavirus front, seeing 999 residents die from COVID-19 since March 2020 but administering 4,435 vaccines as of Jan. 4 and seeing cases decline 28 percent since the prior month. County council allocated $1 million toward vaccine supplies ahead of a Jan. 19 virtual memorial for those who died during the pandemic. Institutions around the county looked for new ways to progress back to normal life, including Neumann University rolling out a mobile rapid testing lab for residential students returning to dorms for the spring semester.

Frustrations were mounting on the vaccine front by late February. County officials announced about 1,000 doses were arriving from the state weekly, translating to a rate of 10-plus years to vaccine every resident.

Increased allotments from the state upped the county’s potential rate to a 20,000 vaccinations a week by the start of April. Officials then planned a six mass vacattions at Delaware County Community College with a goal of reaching 140,000 residents.

With positivity rates down and vaccine distribution up, many school districts moved back to in-person classes during the spring semester. Late April brought the first wave of student vaccinations in the 16- to 18-year-old age range.

The countywide vaccination rate neared 70% in late July as fears of a fall surge from the delta variant emerged. With the fall semester looming, the push was on for children 12 and up. County government-sponsored summer events included a “Kids Kick COVID” clinic in conjunction with the Philadelphia Union. The William Penn School District’s “Vacc to School” clinic at the close of August was one several in the back to school ramp up.

While the delta variant’s spread coinciding with the fall semester brought a 10-fold increase in youth cases sequentially from mid-month August to September for both the county and state, the statewide hospitalizations for 0- to 17-year-olds inched up 0.1 percent to 0.3 percent.

Countywide vaccination rate by early December stood at 71.1 percent of county residents for at least one vaccine dose, with 59.8 percent having been fully vaccinated.

The long-running Democratic push to take back county control of its prison from contactor GEO Group Inc. came to fruition in the fall. The county Jail Oversight Board voted 6-2 in late September to terminate GEO’s contract for managing the 1,883-inmate George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Concord. Councilman Kevin Madden, jail oversight board chairman, said the move comes down to the vision of a jail’s role in society. “If it is merely to warehouse humans, then, you know, probably the simplest thing would be continuing with a private operator,” he said before calling “restorative justice” and aid to drug addicts and the mentally ill “diametrically opposed to the interests of a for-profit enterprise.”

One week later county council completed the move with a unanimous vote to terminate the contract.

Former Republican Councilman Wallace Nunn, who spearheaded the move to privatization in the 1990s, called the vote into question and accused council on going on a spending spree that will lead to increased real estate taxes to the tune of 15 to percent over the next several years.

Nunn warned that the annual cost will go up $20 million, equally to a 10 percent increase in real estate taxes.

The plan picked up steam in the spring as a series of financial impact reports arrived, led by the April release of CGL Companies’ study. The Jail Oversight Board hired the firm to oversee the transition and perform a financial evaluation in December 2020. The April report presented three scenarios – maintaining the status quo of inmates and staff; a reduction in staff and investment into new program; and a larger staff reduction with a drop in inmate population. The third scenario would yield an annual savings of $7 million. GEO officials called the report into question, saying several expenses itemized as one-time costs are in fact recurring and questioning how the county would run the facility with up to 25 percent less staff.

The Delaware County Juvenile Detention Center in the Lima section of Middletown found itself in the hot seat throughout the year after county Public Defender Chris Welsh and First Assistant Public Defender Lee Awbrey issued an explosive letter with affidavits from counselors and social workers at the facility on March 12. The letter expressed “grave concerns” about the safety of juveniles in the facility after hearing reports of abuse perpetuated by staff there.

“We’re not here talking about one isolated incident and one bad actor,” said Welsh. “We’re here because of systemic abuse; the systemic abuse of children. Our juvenile justice system is broken and our kids are being abused.”

Common Pleas Court President Judge Kevin F. Kelly ordered the facility closed after receiving the letter March 12 and Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer forwarded the matter to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro for investigation.

Welsh said placement at the 60-bed facility had been depressed due to the coronavirus pandemic and that there have been between four and 15 children there at any one time since he came on in July.

Two of the four offenders there when the facility was closed were sent home and the others were transferred to other centers, Welsh said. All staff at the Lima facility has been placed on unpaid leave, according to a county spokesperson.

Later in the month, two former facility residents filed suit in federal court alleging sexual, physical and psychological abuse at the hands of staff there, as well as the complicity of the Child Guidance Resource Center in covering up or ignoring systemic abuse of youth at the facility.

In the midst of trying to deprivatize the county prison, county council had to turn back to GEO Group Inc. to find a solution to the shuttered juvenile facility in April. Council approved a contract with a GEO Group Inc. subsidiary to place juveniles in a Morgantown, Pa., facility – with a strong emphasis that the situation be temporary.

In an effort to find a long-term solution, council unanimously approved creating a 10-member Board of Managers of Juvenile Detention during a June meeting.

As unemployment benefits expired for employees in September, the county also ran out of options for placing juvenile suspects. Since the initial contract with GEO, the county had formed partnerships additional private organizations and surrounding county governments. However, they all reserved the right to deny Delaware County a bed at these facilities for any reason ranging from behavior and alleged offense of the juvenile to lack of staffing.

One years’ long open space debate took a strong turn toward resolution during the year. The fate of the Don Guanella property in Marple first sparked emotional debate when the Archdiocese of Philadelphia announced a 2015 sale of the 213 acres for development of Cardinal Crossings, a massive mixed used development, by Bruce Goodman Properties. The grass roots efforts of “Save Marple Greenspace” and others paid off when the archdiocese pulled the sale in July 2016.

A series of false starts on development followed in the ensuing years, most recently with the Marple Township Commissioners shooting down preliminary Village at Sproul Road plans, a residential development in December 2020.

Seven months later, county council announced it was in the process of acquiring the property through eminent domain to transform it into a county park. “When this started out six years ago, this was looking pretty bleak,” said Ken Hemphill, communications director for Save Marple Greenspace. “This news from county council is fantastic.” Archdiocese spokesman Ken Gavin said church officials had no comment at the time, but noted the archdiocese still uses the facility for retreats and office space and the local municipal agencies have used the property for training purposes.

Councilwoman Elaine Paul Schaefer said the plan would not require raising taxes.

County council voted in July to move forward with eminent domain proceedings for the 124 acres belonging to the archdiocese and 89 owned by Maple Glen Development LLC, prompting a standing ovation from attendees.

The county brought on an appraisal professional in the ensuing months, with council approving setting aside $21 million toward the acquisition. The funds came from proceeds of bonds issued in April 2020. Council capped out its open space efforts for the year by investing more than $3.4 million across three locations – Rose Tree Park, Little Flower Park in Darby borough and Upland County Park. The funding will come from a combination of capital plan funds and American Rescue Plan Act.

Another environmental matter remained outstanding at year’s end. Concerned Chester residents and other environmentalists pressed on county officials throughout the year as Covanta’s contract for solid waste disposal at its waste-to-energy incinerator comes up for renewal in April 2022. The waste-to-energy facility came under ownership of Covanta in 2005. Built by Westinghouse, it was opened in 1991. It converts 3,500 tons of municipal solid waste into 80 megawatts of electricity each day, about enough power for 70,000 homes. About 30 percent of this trash comes from Delaware County and 1.8 percent comes from Chester. The rest comes from New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Maryland.

Chester Residents Concerned for Quality of Living were out in March at spots around the city collecting signatures to end incineration in the city and to keep its water under community control.

In April, Covanta began posting on its website daily averages of emissions factors at the Chester incinerator in an attempt to show how the facility works every day. The move did little to quell concerns among activists, and residents from riverfront towns came together in June to walk along the Delaware from Tinicum Township to Marcus Hook in protest of pollution.

In response to the event, Covanta spokesman James F. Regan said “we operate the facility up to 99 percent below required emissions limits and it is a minor source of overall emissions in the county. Instead of protesting the facility, that energy would be better spent working with us on real solutions to reduce emissions from all sources and address the needs of Chester residents.” Regan noted that waste-to- energy facilities like the one in Chester are widely recognized as the most sustainable way to manage waste after recycling.

With time ticking on the contract by late July, Delaware County Council members said they were looking into what waste options are available and what legal avenues exist for council related to this issue. “We are in the process of soliciting an outside vendor to come in and help us to develop a Solid Waste Plan and when we are sending out the RFP… we specifically are asking the vendor to help us to better understand what other options would we have other than an incinerator,” said council Chairman Brian Zidek. “Separately, we’ve also asked them to help us understand what we could do to help reduce the amount of waste we produce so whether it’s incinerated or put into a landfill, there’s less of it.”

Come November, California-based Zero Waste Associates was on board to craft a 10-year solid waste plan. Council approved the 12-month project for $215,000 to begin Dec. 1. The county must submit a Solid Waste Management Plan to the Pennsylvania DEP in 2023 on its trash handling over the following decade.

The Covanta plant was not the only city-based issue to remain unresolved for the year. After a tumultuous 2020 in the battle over DELCORA’s merger with Aqua, developments slowed in 2021 and closed the year with the issue still pending before the Commonwealth Court and the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission. The nine-member board of the city-based independent municipal wastewater authority, which serves roughly 500,000 customers across 42 municipalities in Delaware and Chester counties, unanimously approved a merger with Aqua in September 2019. The board – appointed by county council – indicated the $276.5 million purchase price would be used to pay off outstanding debt and to invest in a rate stabilization plan meant to save the average retail customer $1,400, help offset almost $1.2 billion in new and ongoing capital costs over the next 20 years, and control costs associated with regulations under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Long-Term Control Plan. County Democrats charged the move was politically motivated, calling DELCORA a longtime bastion of patronage jobs for the Chester city and Delaware County GOP and that the party was looking to get the jobs out of council’s hands before a potential Democratic takeover.

A series of legal battles between the newly Democrat-controlled county council and the authority ensued, finishing 2020 with a Dec. 28 order from county Judge Barry Dozer giving DELCORA approval to move forward with the merger. The new year opened with administrative law judges Angela T. Jones and F. Joseph Brady recommending that the PUC reject the sale as several issues still had to be resolved by court cases. While the recommendation was non-binding, Delaware County Solicitor Bill Martin said such decisions normally carry “significant weight” with the PUC.

The litigation between county council and the authority, along with the PUC decision on the merger, remained in stasis throughout the year. The DELCORA pointed that this fact when it announced a 12.5% percent rate increase for 2022 at an October meeting, lapping a 10 percent boost in 2020 and 8 percent in 2019. DELCORA Executive Director Robert J. Willert said the raise would have been 3 percent had the merger been finalized.

The controversy surrounding Chester Water Authority completed its fifth calendar year with no resolution since Aqua first made an unsolicited offer to buy the authority for $250 million. The move set off years of litigation and turned up piles of partially-redacted documents showing behind-the-scenes talks between Aqua and various third-parties involved in Chester City’s Act 47 status.

CWA held a “Public Water Independence Day” rally at its Welsh Street headquarters in May to commemorate the four-year anniversary of rejecting the initial bid from then-Aqua America, now Essential Utilities, and saving ratepayers an estimated $200 million. Essential Utilities called that number into question and dismissed the event as a public relations stunt.

One long-awaited decision came down in the fall when the Commonwealth Court ruled on Sept. 16 that the city of Chester has the right to sell the authority. Lawyers for CWA filed a request the following day for the state Supreme Court to hear the case.

Commonwealth Court Judge Patricia A. McCullough issued the majority opinion in the appeal of the City of Chester and Aqua Pennsylvania Inc. vs. the Chester Water Authority. At issue in this case – there are several others that remain in litigation – was whether the Municipality Authorities Act allows a municipality to obtain the assets of the water authority it created.

In its petition to the Supreme Court to hear the case, the CWA stated that “the Commonwealth Court took an ‘unconscionable’ step towards vitiating over (80) years of the Chester Water Authority’s autonomy and existence, ostensibly allowing a municipality that does not own or operate the Authority, has not contributed monies to it, and which is a mere super minority both on its board and within its service area, to pilfer the assets funded by Authority’s 200,000 ratepayers throughout southeastern Pennsylvania for the City of Chester’s own purposes unrelated to the Authority’s mission of providing clean and affordable water.”
After the court’s decision, Receiver Michael T. Doweary issued a statement that “Chester needs a significant influx of money to regain financial stability and ensure that the City government can provide vital and necessary services on a recurring basis. The only way that can occur is if we address the pension funding crisis.” Noting that “the City does not have any other asset that would come close to generating the lev of proceeds the City needs, it must monetize the water system.” Doweary said this move does not necessarily mean privatizing the system, should a public agency come through with a buying price deemed acceptable.

Chris Franklin, Essential Utilities chairman and CEO, weighed in supporting the receiver’s comments. “The City of Chester needs another corporate anchor to support the local economy and civic and charitable organizations, create jobs and partner with the city’s administration.”

Paul Andriole, CWA board vice chairman, countered in a letter to Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland that forcing a sale would “benefit Aqua/Essential’s second largest shareholder, the Canadian Public Pension Investment Board, many Chester residents will no longer be able to afford their water bill.” Andriole wrote that the average residential CWA water bill is $366.48 per year and surmised that it would be $809.76 under Aqua’s rate structure, meaning “water service will become unaffordable for over 61% of the City’s residents.”

City Council then unanimously voted in October to ask the Receiver to approve a $410 million asset purchase agreement with Aqua for the assets of CWA.

After the vote, Franklin reiterated past statements that Aqua would commitment to retaining all CWA employees, permanently maintain ongoing uses and access to the authority’s Octoraro Reservoir and to long-term rate stability for customers inside and outside of the city.

At the state level, a years’ long push for stronger repeat-DUI law in memory of a county resident picked back up its traction over the year. A reintroduced bill for Deana’s Law passed the state House in November 168-32. A companion Senate bill closed the year still sitting before the Transportation committee. In early March, state Rep. Chris Quinn, R-168 of Middletown, and state Sen. Bob Mensch, R-24 of Marlborough Township, announced the new pair of bills as a second effort to get something passed in the name of Deana Eckman, 45, who was killed by David Strowhouer in a drunk-driving crash as she and her husband, Chris, were returning home from a family gathering Feb. 16, 2019.

Strowhouer’s blood-alcohol level was 0.199 and he had traces of cocaine, diazepam and marijuana in his system at the time. Strowhouer had five prior DUIs on his record since 2010 and was on probation for a previous offense at the time of the crash. Eckman’s mother, Roseann DeRosa, said the criminal justice system had failed her daughter and family. She and her husband, Richard DeRosa, had been working with lawmakers for more than a year to strengthen DUI laws at the time of the March introduction.

A prior bill named for Eckman crafted by former Republican state Sen. Tom Killion of Middletown, was defeated last year. That was chiefly due to an amendment that carved out marijuana “used lawfully” under the state’s Medical Marijuana Act from definitions for a “controlled substance,” which was later removed, and opposition from second amendment organizations over penalties including first-degree felonies, which bar an offender from later owning firearms.

Later in March, the reintroduced bill moved out of the House Transportation Committee by a 25-0 vote. The bill would increase the penalty for a third DUI offense to a third-degree felony and a felony of the second degree if the individual has three or more prior offenses. It also requires the imposition of consecutive, rather than concurrent, sentences. Sen. Mensch’s companion bill proposed essentially the same changes, except that the Senate bill includes a provision for “continuous alcohol monitoring” devices, which are worn by offenders and alert law enforcement if alcohol in the wearer’s system so they can be detained before getting behind the wheel. The State Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing on the bill in September, receiving testimony from Eckman’s parents and Stollsteimer.

 



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