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
February 14, 2004
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
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:
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 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.
February 12, 2004
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:
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:
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:
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:
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
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:
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
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.
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
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:
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
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:
February 6 marked the 25th month of this site's existence.
As of that date, 184,118 visitors viewed 235,426 pages.
Thanks very much for your patronage.
Stop by again soon.
Official small print disclaimer: This is, after all, a personal web site. Any opinions or comments I express here are my own, and don't necessarily reflect the official position of my work as a government attorney or any of my clients.
That fact may become obvious later on, but it needs to be said here anyway.
© Frederick H. Schranck 2002-2004