Milford council schedules third retreat, as COVID-19 impacts city workforce

MILFORD — City Council met Monday night to discuss public works, the date of its next retreat and the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the city.

City Manager Mark Whitfield reported that 19 city employees have been infected with the virus so far.

“COVID has hit our employees pretty significantly in the month of December,” he said.

While the city “really escaped most of COVID altogether through the middle of November,” he said that “as of the end of December, we had 17 confirmed cases, five of which had already healed and were back at work.”

Additionally, Mr. Whitfield reported that there were two more cases confirmed in the first week of January.

He said these cases and Gov. John Carney’s orders on maintaining safe workplaces through the pandemic have led to some changes.

“We altered a lot of work schedules between Dec. 14 and Jan. 11 to have people work from home whenever possible,” Mr. Whitfield said. “We also split crews’ reporting times to try to keep folks segregated as much as possible.”

Mike Svaby, the city’s public works director, ensured council that absences due to COVID-19 have not affected his department’s performance.

Lou Vitola, Milford’s finance director, had some insight into how the city’s coffers have been impacted. He said Milford’s Customer Service Department, which collects utility bills, had a lot of pandemic-related absences last month.

“In addition to scheduled holiday and vacation time and the governor’s order, we were very short-staffed,” Mr. Vitola said.

He said their minimized performance through this period shows that “the efforts that Customer Service undertakes really does have an impact on our figures.”

Mr. Vitola said that in the four months before September, the city had seen consecutive decreases in the quantity of utility accounts and dollar amounts past due.

However, he said, “in just three-and-a-half, four weeks with our relaxed efforts, we’re at our maximum number of past-due accounts, and we’re over 100,000 higher in past-due dollars than we were at the last report.”

The council also gave final approval to changes to developer Ryan Homes’ plan for the second phase of the Milford Ponds subdivision, south of town. Now, 89 detached single-family homes will be constructed in place of the town homes laid out in the original plan.

Although the council unanimously approved the project, some members were interested in making this approval contingent upon the developer remedying construction issues in the rest of the subdivision.

“Can we stipulate that no permits are to be issued until those matters have been resolved?” Councilman Mike Boyle said.

At a council meeting in November, City Engineer James Puddicombe shared that the contractor building the streets in the subdivision was struggling to do the work correctly.

“I hate to go ahead and give approvals when substandard workmanship has been (present in) the cases that have been seen thus far,” said Councilman Andrew Fulton.

Tim Metzner, a landscape architect with Davis, Bowen & Friedel Inc., which is working on the project, said these issues have been addressed.

“The owner has worked with the contractor who is working with the city and working out the details on fixing those concerns, and we have begun to move forward with construction,” he said.

Regardless, city officials said that council can’t withhold approval for a project over concerns like this.

“My recommendation is to separate any construction issues from the administrative process of reviewing the subdivision,” said Rob Pierce, Milford’s planning and economic development director. “That’s a separate issue that tends to resolve itself because … building permits are withheld until the streets and utilities are addressed in any subdivision.”

City Solicitor David Rutt added that because subdivision construction requirements and the process for approving new additions to subdivisions are in different sections of the city code, the council must consider the issues separately.

The council also scheduled the date of its in-person retreat focused on public safety and infrastructure for Feb. 6.

City Clerk Terri Hudson said the meeting will be open to the public. Mr. Whitfield plans to begin the meeting around 8:30 a.m. and finish in the early afternoon.

He said “there has been some interest in having a pre-retreat workshop to cover those items,” so council will be gathering to get members up to speed on infrastructure and public safety Jan. 21.

In other activity, council gave final approval to two projects that came through the board of adjustment and the City Planning Committee late last year.

Grant Shane, the owner of Clear Definition Auto Body on Rehoboth Boulevard, was given permission to operate a high-end auto-detailing business out of the former GROWMARK facility at 301 N.E. Front St.
The building, which is owned in part by state Rep. Bryan Shupe, R-Milford, and his wife, Sherri, will also be home to the couple’s Fur Baby pet-sitting and supply business, pending state and city approvals.

Council also awarded a bid for the Northeast Front Street waterline-replacement project. A contract was awarded to the lowest bidder — ECM Corp. of Fort Washington, Maryland — which will replace the pipe for about $1.1 million.

Mr. Whitfield said the waterline replacement will precede a project the city is carrying out in conjunction with the Delaware Department of Transportation to beautify Northeast Front Street, which he expects to get underway in the spring.