Delaware Public Media

Small towns in First State work to maintain their identities

May 1, 2015

It’s not easy being small.

But, for small towns in Delaware, it’s better being small than having a bigger entity making decisions for you.

“We are not New Castle County – as a matter of fact, most of their codes do not apply here,” says Scott MacKenzie, president of the Bellefonte Town Commission. “We have self-determination – and isn’t that what we all want?”

Bellefonte, with 1,193 residents counted in the 2010 Census, is the largest of 29 towns and villages in Delaware with a population of 1,200 or less. The smallest of those towns, Hartly, population 74, actually had its local government fall apart. A group of concerned residents banded together earlier this year and began putting the pieces together again.

Ask members of a town council why it’s important that their small town remain a town, and most likely you’ll get an answer like the one MacKenzie gave – you can’t put a price tag on the power to make your own decisions.

If Little Creek, were an unincorporated area in Kent County, “they’d probably roll us into Dover,” jokes Glenn Gauvry, mayor of the 224-resident town just east of Delaware’s capital city.

“We want to have the ability to set the tone for where we live and where we’re going,” he says.

“A lot of towns provide very little in the way of services,” says Carl Luft, the former Newark city manager who is now executive director of the Delaware League of Local Governments.

Some of the larger small towns – Newport (population 1,055) and Greenwood (population 973), for example – have their own police forces, which account for more than half of the towns’ budgets. In Bethel (population 171), the biggest expenses are for street lights and maintaining the roads, says Jeff Hastings, president of the town commission. Bellefonte’s top budget item is trash collection, taking up 62 percent of the budget, followed by snow removal and street lighting, MacKenzie says.

In many towns, one of the biggest challenges is finding enough residents to keep the government going.

Hartly fell on hard times about three years ago when a majority of the five-member town commission stopped showing up for meetings. That left no one to make decisions, to pay bills, to collect taxes. Following a series of meetings in December and January, plans were formulated to elect a new town commission on the last Saturday in April. As it turned out, an election wasn’t needed because exactly five residents agreed to serve on the town commission, which is now in the process of reorganizing.

“They were losing out on everything by not organizing,” Luft says. In addition to lost tax revenues, without a government, the town couldn’t seek municipal street aid funds from the state, assistance from the Office of State Planning Coordination, and various other grants that would keep the town functioning.

No other Delaware towns have recently faced a situation as bleak as Hartly’s, but uncontested elections are commonplace.

“We would only require an election if we had more candidates than open seats, which has not occurred for quite a while,” Bellefonte’s MacKenzie says. Because of resignations and a lack of interested residents, the five-member commission has often had one vacant seat during the past 10 years, he says.

“The opportunity of being an all-volunteer hardworking commissioner does not draw a crowd of contestants,” he says.

“I’ve been here for seven years and we’ve had one election. Usually it’s uncontested,” says Wendy King, the Newport town manager. Recruiting candidates is a challenge, she says.

“We’re begging, pleading, groveling, but we can’t do anything about it if they’re not interested,” she says. “Fortunately, our mayor [Michael Spencer] is a smooth talker.”

The situation is similar in Greenwood (two elections in five years) and Millville (no elections in six years), but town managers say both towns are running smoothly.

“The people on council choose to stay,” says John McDonnell, the Greenwood town manager. “They’re good people. They leave their [personal] agendas in the parking lot.”

In Little Creek, the council also has little turnover. A few months ago, Gauvry says, he suggested at a meeting that “it is important that we look at ways to replace ourselves,” to create opportunities for “someone younger, brighter, with new ideas to take your place.” His colleagues on the council responded with skeptical laughter, “like it was a joke,” he says. 

Not only does Millville have a solid five-member council, town manager Debbie Botchie says, but there is also a crew of about 15 regular volunteers who help out in the town office by answering the phone, copying and filing documents and helping organize town-sponsored events throughout the year.

Many of Delaware’s small towns get by without any paid staff – Bethel and Little Creek, for example, are all volunteer, while Bellefonte pays a stipend to its town secretary, who is responsible for correspondence and meeting minutes, and its building inspector.

“Town manager” may seem to be a lofty title but it really means jack of all trades.

“I do everything,” says Newport’s King. “I answer the phone, open the mail, pay the bills, balance the books. I file the pension reports and arrange for mosquito control.”

“It’s pretty much a next-man-up operation,” says McDonnell, whose staff in Bridgeville consists of an assistant and a public works specialist. At the start of one April morning, “I talked with the mayor, met with Delmarva Power about utility poles, had a discussion about a flood plain ordinance and met with an engineer about water and sewer issues.”

Services that towns don’t provide are often handled by the county government. For example, Bellefonte relies on New Castle County for policing and property code enforcement and Greenwood calls on Sussex County government for building inspections of new construction.

One of the most important functions of town governments is to write a comprehensive plan and then review it after five years and update it five years later, says Connie Holland, director of the Office of State Planning Coordination.

Since most towns don’t have the expertise to write their own plans, Holland’s office lends a hand, providing checklists for towns to follow and arranging for representatives of various state offices to meet with town officials as plans are being developed. The Department of Transportation assists with road and traffic issues, the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control with water, sewer and parkland matters, and the Historic Preservation Office with matters related to preserving and rehabilitating historic buildings and landmarks, Holland says.

Almost every municipality in the state has written its own plan, she says. The only ones that haven’t are Hartly, Kenton and Woodside.

Every town is different, with some eager for growth and others committed to preserving their heritage, and comprehensive plans create the framework for achieving the desired objective, Holland says.

She cites Leipsic (population 183) in Kent County as an example. “They wanted to keep their crab boats in their front yards, their businesses in their homes, and they didn’t want a WalMart or any hotels,” she says. “Their plan lets them keep the character of Leipsic.”

Contrast that with Millville, which Botchie says is one of the fastest growing areas in Sussex County.

A series of annexations that began in 2002 have stretched the town’s boundaries to the north, south and west, and plans for about 4,000 new homes are on the books, Botchie says. Construction already completed has added about 200 people to the 2010 Census count of 544 residents and, if developers carry out their plans, population could approach 11,000 by 2030.

Even with the new development, Millville is trying to retain its small-town feel. Over the years, the old downtown area on Route 26 has evolved from residential to primarily small business uses, Botchie says. Six banks, anticipating a surge in residents, have located in town, along with two supermarkets, which also serve residents of Ocean View and Bethany Beach.

The town is on firm financial footing. Property tax revenues total about $800,000, and spending for operations is about $500,000. The annual surplus is being set aside to pay for capital improvements – a town park and a new municipal building, which will include space for a Delaware State Police substation.

“We pay cash,” Botchie says. “We spend the way my father taught me – ‘Don’t borrow money, Debbie.’”

Little Creek, Gauvry says, is now in the process of updating its comprehensive plan. One of Delaware’s most prosperous communities a century and a half ago, Little Creek still clings to its maritime heritage and hopes to make itself at least a small-scale tourism destination as part of the Delaware Bay Shore Byway, he says.

“As with most communities, the issue is keeping yourself relevant – not only for the current residents, but also for the people we hope will move here and live here,” he says.

While many small towns struggle to find residents willing to participate in local government, that doesn’t necessarily mean community spirit is lacking. “People are wired in different ways,” Gauvry says, pointing to the volunteer fire company and the Methodist church in town as hubs of involvement.

In Bellefonte, MacKenzie exemplifies those who serve. “I plan on retiring here and would like to leave the town on good footing so that it survives and thrives,” he says.

“We may have our best days behind us, but we may have better days ahead,” Gauvry says. “But we’re only going to see that future if we govern ourselves.”

Delaware’s Small Towns

(Population in 2010 U.S. Census)

Bellefonte

1,193

Bethany Beach

1,060

Newport 

1,055

Bellefonte

973

Frankford

847

Dagsboro

805

Frederica

774

Millville 

544

South Bethany

449

Arden* 

439

Ellendale

381

Fenwick Island 

379

Houston 

374

Odessa 

364

Dewey Beach

341

Bowers

335

Ardentown*

264

Kenton

261

Ardencroft*

231

Magnolia

225

Little Creek

224

Slaughter Beach 

207

Leipsic

183

Woodside

181

Bethel 

171

Viola

157

Henlopen Acres

122

Farmington 

110

Hartly

74

*village