Sneaking Suspicions
Archives-- February 8-14, 2004

This page includes posts from February 8-14, 2004 in the usual reverse order. Each posting on the home page is perma-linked to these archive pages.

February 14, 2004
Retail Support Brigade, Maritime Division*

Today my buddy Kevin and I went down to the Ocean City Boat Show, a mainstay of the otherwise quiet winter season on the Delmarva Peninsula. We were joined by several thousand close personal friends who also love boats.

From what we could see, business was booming.

For example, we lingered at one pontoon boat exhibitor and discussed the merits of the various designs and engine options available. During that one fifteen-minute interlude that exhibitor sold two boats.

The other marine dealers spread throughout the massive convention center seemed to be doing equally well, as were the bankers who’d thoughtfully set up their own booths. 

I’ll bet that a whole lot of tax refund money, enhanced by last year’s tax cuts, is what we'll be seeing floating around the inland bays and Delmarva coastline this summer.

There’s an old adage that the two best days of your boating life are the day you buy the boat and the day you sell it. 

If true, at least on this one day there were definitely some happy boaters walking around.

*Title inspired by Glenn Reynolds.

February 13, 2004
Family Pride

We have a pad of cartoon notepaper with magnetic backing that we keep on the front door of our refrigerator. Drawn by Leslie Moak Murray, the cartoon shows a woman describing her day:

  1. Put on brown stretch pants and baggy gray T-shirt.
  2. Run errands.
  3. Bump into every person I have ever met.

If I substitute the word “taught” for “met” in the last line, that is an accurate description of my wife’s experience.

For more than ten years, she has taught hundreds of students at Delaware Technical & Community College. For the last several years she’s managed the English as a Second Language (ESL) program, but when she first began teaching at the Georgetown campus she also taught GED and Adult Basic Education courses.

This is not a heavily-populated county. Therefore, hardly a week goes by when she doesn’t meet a former student.

An encounter a couple days ago wasn’t quite so direct, but it was awfully nice nonetheless.

Two men came to our house to deliver some furniture we’d bought. One of them, a man named Donell, told me he was sorry that my wife wasn’t home, because he was looking forward to seeing her: 

“I wanted to thank her. She taught me GED, and she helped me turn my life around. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for her.”

I don’t think I could have felt more proud of my wife than I did at that moment.

I told Donell I’d pass on the message, and that I was sure she’d appreciate it.

She did.

February 12, 2004
You can’t always make someone else do what you said you’d do yourself

The responsibility for sidewalk maintenance and reconstruction is a thorny social issue that defies easy, one-size-fits-all solutions.

In Delaware, for example, it often depends on where the paths are, who built them, and for what reason.

The state Department of Transportation builds sidewalks where its planning process determines that they would be helpful, such as in support of transit operations or as part of a general upgrade in a given area. For sidewalks leading to schools, a little-known state law also requires DelDOT to furnish and maintain the paths.

However, for most of its history the Department’s normal sidewalk maintenance policy has also been limited to replacing the sidewalks when they’ve reached a serious state of deterioration.

DelDOT also makes no significant effort to sweep sidewalks clear of snow, or repair the occasional crack or raised segments caused by the roots of nearby trees. Nonetheless, the state's sovereign immunity bars claims for any injuries from uninsured risks, such as a bumpy sidewalk.

DelDOT maintains over 900 miles of suburban streets in the unincorporated areas of the state. Nonetheless, it has consistently refused to assume responsibility for the more than 900 miles of sidewalks that are standard amenities in these neighborhoods. County land use regulations for the newer subdivisions usually give that job to the homeowner associations, created to handle maintenance duties for the common areas, including sidewalks.

Nonetheless, in dozens of older developments sidewalk repair/replacement/maintenance duties are essentially unassigned.

Most of the cities in Delaware have enacted ordinances that give at least some of these responsibilities to the adjacent landowners. For example, many of them require the landowners to clear the sidewalks of snow within 24 hours of the event.

Some, like the City of Wilmington, have ordinances that also give the adjacent landowners the task of keeping the city-owned sidewalks in a state of good repair. The ordinance also shifts any legal responsibility for injuries from cracked or uneven sidewalks onto the property owners.

Considering that Wilmington has 360 miles of sidewalks, that’s a fairly broad directive.

In addition, the Tort Claims Act (10 Del.C. Chapter 40, Subch. II) gives the City immunity from suit over injuries sustained in sidewalk accidents.

Therefore, the City’s sidewalk ordinance became the only option for those seeking damages from these common incidents. 

After last Friday’s Delaware Supreme Court decision, that option is no longer available—at least, not yet. 

June Latchford joined two of her friends on a power walk through downtown Wilmington during their lunch hour. While trying to step beyond a raised crack in a sidewalk, Latchford tripped and fell, breaking her hip and causing serious injuries.

She sued the adjacent property owners, citing the City ordinance as the authority for imposing liability. The jury awarded Latchford $230,000.

On appeal, the Supreme Court overturned the ordinance, which led to overturning the verdict.

Writing for the unanimous Court en banc, Justice Steele noted that the City Charter gave the direct responsibility for sidewalks to the City:

1 Wilm. C. § 5-400 (the Wilmington City Charter) states, in relevant part:

The department of public works shall have the power and its duty shall be to perform the following functions:

(a) City streets, etc., generally. It shall itself, or by contract, design, construct, repair and maintain city streets, which shall include highways . . . footways . . . [note omitted].

He compared this Charter language to the challenged ordinance, which shifted repair and maintenance duties onto the adjacent landowners.

And when an ordinance conflicts with a basic Charter provision, it’s just not a fair fight:

[W]e find that §5-400 clearly and unequivocally mandates that the City itself, or by contract repair and maintain, among other things, public sidewalks. Further, we cannot reasonably conclude that the later-enacted [ordinance], which transfers to the adjacent property owner both the duty to repair and maintain and the sole responsibility for damages resulting from the failure to repair or maintain public sidewalks is consistent with §5-400.

Boom went the ordinance.

The Court was careful to recognize that its decision would not necessarily end the debate, although it obviously eliminated this jury award:

We, of course, are in no position to comment on the merits or efficacy of a decision to transfer responsibility to exercise a municipal function from the City to private property owners. We can only conclude that the decision to do so must be made by Wilmington voters or the General Assembly in the form of a properly enacted Charter change and not by ordinance of the Wilmington City Council.

Unlike most Delaware Supreme Court decisions, this one has caused an immediate public reaction. The Mayor was quick to point out that Wilmington didn’t have the money to keep up with all the sidewalk repairs. 

Today a News-Journal editorial writer weighed in with a suggestion about how to maintain sidewalks and impose liability for the failure to meet that obligation:

Sidewalks should be a shared responsibility between the city and property owners. Either the owner or city inspectors should be able to report defects. Repair costs should then be apportioned, based on the cause of the defect, according to a formula stipulated in a revised city charter that leaves property owners liable for maintaining safe sidewalks.

I doubt that solution will be adopted anytime soon, thanks to the questionable cost apportionment method. On the other hand, I think it’s a safe bet that we’ll soon see some other response to the Supreme Court's decision introduced in the state General Assembly, which can amend any City Charter with a two-thirds vote in both houses.

February 11, 2004
Pulling together over pullets

It’s hard to overstate the influence of the poultry industry on Delaware agriculture.

Even though it’s a tiny state, it consistently ranks in the top ten in broiler production, with over 1.5 billion pounds of chicken raised each year and worth over half a billion dollars. Sussex County is the top-producing county in the entire United States, with Kent County in the low 50s. (The state’s only other county, New Castle, has more people than pullets.)

The ripple effect of the state’s biggest agribusiness segment is noticeable. Industry representatives say that each job in poultry processing creates over 7 jobs elsewhere.

With that kind of impact, there’s no wonder that today’s statewide newspaper featured no less than eight stories about the avian flu that has hit at least two farms and led to the premature slaughter of thousands of birds.

The story of one farm family was particularly poignant:

Bonnie Maloney has been raising chickens for more than 35 years. So she knew something was terribly wrong with her flock Saturday morning, when 50 birds turned up dead in one of her three chicken houses near Greenwood.


Test results confirmed Monday night showed that her flock of 73,800 birds was infected with avian influenza, making her Hobo Farms the second operation since Friday to test positive for the virus.


The couple said the loss of their flock will total about $22,000, and they won't be able to bring in any new chickens for at least two months after the dead chickens have been turned to compost.

Bonnie Maloney said the loss of the flock will mean added stress. She's already at home recovering from back surgery in January.

"I just hope it hasn't spread to anyone more than me," Bonnie Maloney said. "I think the Lord will take care of us. We should be OK."

I know some folks who’ve raised chickens as a side-business. With its incredibly tight profit margins and risks, poultry farming is not for the faint-hearted.

And this new potential disaster certainly doesn’t help with the restoration of the state’s current fragile steps toward economic recovery from the recession.

On the other hand, it’s also the kind of problem that tends to bring together the state’s leaders in agribusiness, the universities, and government to find ways to combat the problem quickly.

They will have thousands of Delawareans pulling for them, and not just because so many of them are dependent on the poultry industry for their own jobs.

It’s also because the state’s tiny size helps keep the crisis personal for all of us.

February 10, 2004
Maintaining a sense of history

On January 21, 1998, Jim Lehrer of PBS’ News Hour conducted an interview with President Clinton.

The interview quickly became famous because of the segment relating to Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, with the President using some slippery language in an effort to evade the truth about that relationship. 

Nonetheless, now that President Bush has had his own extended interview with Tim Russert, another segment of the Clinton/Lehrer interview is well worth re-reading:

PRESIDENT CLINTON: They seem to want to wait until early March to open the --

JIM LEHRER: Iraq does?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: -- Iraq -- that -- open the sites that Mr. Butler believes that ought to be opened.

That's a problem for us because we believe that we have to do everything we can, as quickly as we can, to check the chemical and biological weapon stocks. And as I told the American people the last time we had this standoff with Saddam before he relented and let the inspectors go back -- you know, my concern is not to refight the Gulf War; my concern is to prepare our people for a new century, not only in positive ways, like creating a big international financial framework that works for them -- as we just talked about -- but also to make sure we have the tools to protect ourselves against chemical and biological weapons.

So I won't -- tonight, I can't rule out or in any options. But I can tell you I am very concerned about this. And I don't think the American people should lose sight of the issue. What's the issue? Weapons of mass destruction. What's the answer? The U.N inspectors. What's the problem? Saddam Hussein can't say who, where, or when about these inspection teams. That has to be done by the professionals.

And sooner or later, something is going to give here, and I am just very much hoping that we can reason with him before that happens, but we've got to have those sites open.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Ambassador Richardson at the U.N. and others in the administration have said the military option, just to continue your sentence, the military option remains on the table. The ambassador from Iraq to the U.N. was on our program and he pretty much acknowledged that Iraq is banking on that not being real, that the U.S. alone is not going to go in and take out some suspected anthrax facilities, particularly if it's in the palace where Saddam Hussein lives, et cetera, et cetera.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, the United States does not relish moving alone, because we live in a world that is increasingly interdependent. We would like to be partners with other people. But sometimes we have to be prepared to move alone. You used the anthrax example. Think how many can be killed by just a tiny bit of anthrax, and think about how it's not just that Saddam Hussein might put it on a Scud missile, an anthrax head, and send it on to some city he wants to destroy. Think about all the other terrorists and other bad actors who could just parade through Baghdad and pick up their stores if we don't take action. I far prefer the United Nations, I far prefer the inspectors, I have been far from trigger-happy on this thing, but if they really believe that there are no circumstances under which we would act alone, they are sadly mistaken. That is not a threat. I have shown I do not relish this thing. Every time it's discussed around here, I say one of the great luxuries of being the world's only superpower for a while -- and it won't last forever probably, but for a while -- is that there is always time enough to kill. And therefore we have a moral responsibility to show restraint and to seek partnerships and alliances, and I've done that. But I don't have to explain to my grandchildren why we took a powder on what we think is a very serious biological and chemical weapons programs potentially by a country that has already used chemical weapons on the Iranians and on the Kurds, their own people.

JIM LEHRER: So you would order an air strike or whatever it would take to take out some facility if you couldn't get away from it any other way.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I'm going to stay with my tried and true formulation -- I'm not ruling out or in any option. I was responding to what you said that the Iraqi official thought that we were just talking because we wouldn't want to discomfort anyone or make them mad. That's not true. This is a serious thing with me, this is a very serious thing. You imagine the capacity of these tiny amounts of biological agents to cause great harm; it's something we need to get after. And I don't understand why they are not for getting after it. What can they possibly get out of it? If he really cares about his people. He is always talking about how bad his people have been hurt by sanctions. If he cared he would open all these sites and let people go in and look at them. If he's telling the truth, and there's really nothing there, and what benefit does the United States have now for stopping the United Nations from lifting the sanctions? I have done everything I've been asked to do. Even though we have got reservations about it, we would have a hard time answering that question.

JIM LEHRER: Would you go along with lifting the sanctions.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Our position is if he complies with all the United Nations sanctions, the conditions of all U.N. resolutions leading to sanctions, that's what we want Iraq to do. But he wants to have it both ways. He wants to get the sanction lifted because he thinks people want to do business with him and he wants to continue to pursue a weapons program that is dangerous, we think, is dangerous to the world and our position. I want him to think about it and let these inspectors go back.

[Emphasis supplied.]

I try to keep these statements in mind whenever I read someone taking off after the current Administration for its actions in Iraq.

February 9, 2004
The musical inspiration of Eugene Volokh

Eugene Volokh recently posted two interesting pieces about animals and homosexuality, inspired by a NYT piece on the same subject.

Unfortunately, Professor Volokh’s thoughts on the subject created its own pernicious influence on me, in the form of a bit of music that I can’t seem to get out of my head.

I refer, of course, to the chorus of The Bloodhouse Gang’s biggest hit, The Bad Touch, noted on their Lyrics Schmyrics page:

You and me baby ain't nothin' but mammals
So let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel

Thanks so very much, Professor.

I don’t know the musical accompaniment to another song by the same band, I Wish I Was Queer So I Could Get Chicks.

And that's probably a good thing.

February 8, 2004
A rare treat on tax policy

I can usually count on disagreeing with the editorial board of Delaware’s primary statewide newspaper on almost any issue concerning state and local government.

But not always. On several occasions, the newspaper and I have both suggested that the system of property tax reassessment among the state’s three counties is in need of serious repair, largely due to lack of use.

Last week the government of Sussex County (where we live) announced a significant revenue surplus. Among the first suggestions about what to do with the extra cash was to hand out property tax rebate checks.

Apparently the idea of spending some of that money to conduct a property tax reassessment didn’t occur to them. 

This is not a surprise. After all, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the last time they performed an official estimate of real property values in the county. In addition, this is an election year. 

Even so, as a matter of tax policy, the routine failure to reassess real property for taxation is completely indefensible.

This is a county administration that firmly believes in the adage “the less done by us, the better.” As a general rule, I tend to agree with them. On the other hand, if they’re going to do something, such as impose a tax on real property, it ought to be done right.

Today’s News-Journal is of the same opinion:

[T]he reassessment problem in Delaware continues to drag on since the counties walked away from a state offer to pay for half of the cost in the mid-1990s.
In Sussex, where homes of $5 million and up at the beach areas are not unusual, the last reassessment was in 1974, and that wasn't a thorough one.

Because of the long delay between updating property values and adjusting tax rates, Sussex residents in Laurel and Seaford [in the western part of the county] pay proportionately much higher property taxes per $100 valuations than the owners of multi-million dollar beach homes. It is patently unfair to all taxpayers and deprives the government and school districts of new money from modern construction.

Property owners in Delaware should start thinking about fair payments instead of greedily demanding rebates from surpluses. Property reassessment, especially when it hasn't been done for decades, usually leads to lower property taxes for about half the population. Government generally establish[es] a cap for those whose taxes increase. That's the kind of payback taxpayers should be looking for.

Yup. Or as someone else might say, "Indeed".

February 8, 2004
Traffic Report

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Fritz Schranck
P.O. Box 88
Nassau, DE  19969


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© Frederick H. Schranck 2002-2004