Cape Region candidates weigh in on opioid crisis, roads and clean water
Opinions differ on assault weapons during League of Women Voters forum
It was standing room only as about 200 residents listened to candidates talk about drug addiction treatment, improving roads and protecting water during an Oct. 23 League of Women Voters candidates forum held in Lewes.
Four candidates vying for state House and Senate seats that represent Rehoboth Beach and Lewes had two minutes each to share their views on issues two weeks before the Tuesday, Nov. 6 election. Running for the District 14 House seat are Speaker of the House Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth, and his Republican challenger James DeMartino; for the District 6 Senate seat, incumbent Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, is being challenged by Democrat Dave Baker.
House District 14 race
In response to a question about fixing the opioid crisis, DeMartino said a public-private partnership with limited government involvement is the best way to approach drug rehabilitation.
“We have to look at what is effective first,” he said. “The state doesn't work in medical facilities and medical care … [government] should not be in the business of mental or medical care.”
Prevention and identifying the core reasons for addiction are also key to solving the opioid problem, he said. “We need to stop it at the source. Let's stop it up front,” DeMartino said.
Schwartzkopf repeated an idea he floated in 2017 to turn the Delaware State Police Troop 7 on Route 1 into a drug rehabilitation center. A new Troop 7 off Route 24 is expected to be open in 2020.
“We had the opportunity to put a rehab house in the Lewes area and everyone jumped up and down screaming, so they decided they would put it in another area around Lewes and everyone jumped up and down screaming,” Schwartzkopf said. “Nobody even knew where those areas were because they didn't exist yet, so we ended up losing that, and it ended up going to Harrington.”
Troop 7 is near public transportation, has few neighbors and would be an ideal location for a rehab center, he said.
On the topic of transportation funding, DeMartino said legislators should never have raided the transportation trust fund for anything other than transportation improvements, yet they did so for years.
“How many years ago did that occur, and they're finally recovering it now over the past couple of years?” he asked. “They've known this growth has been rapid, and what have they done in the past 10 to 12 years?”
DeMartino said there has been no foresight to improve transportation in the burgeoning beach area.
“There is a problem, and it needs to be rectified from the Legislature, to funding, to a vision for the future and taking care of these issues now,” he said. “How much longer are you going to have to wait in traffic jams in the summer when tourists are here and emergency medical vehicles have to ride on the side of the road or they can't get there? This is a safety issue.”
Schwartzkopf said he worked hard to bring money to Route 1 for sidewalks and crosswalks, and the improvements have reduced Route 1 bicycle and pedestrian fatalities over the past three years.
“Since we've done that, with the exception of one person who was intoxicated, we haven't had any fatalities; we haven't sent any kids from Europe back home in a box,” he said.
The problem with building new roads is that no one wants them near their neighborhood, he said.
“Nobody wants a new road anywhere near them. We tried to put a parallel road to Plantation Road seven or eight years ago and the public shot it down.”
Both candidates agreed that cleaning area waterways is important.
DeMartino said runoff should be contained so debris does not flow into area waterways. Wetlands have to be preserved in order to take care of the environment, and buffers can protect natural habitats and marshland, he said.
“I know it's costly, but that's an area of funding that should be taken care of,” DeMartino said. “It definitely needs to be discussed and resolved to benefit all.”
Schwartzkopf agreed that clean water is essential for the community, and central sewer should help improve water quality by moving people off individual septic systems. He said farmers have done a good job containing runoff from fields, but residents can do their share, too. “We put a lot of fertilizer on our grass; we try to keep the greenest grass we can have, but the runoff goes straight into our waterways,” he said. “People come here for the beaches and the bays, and it's up to us to keep them in as much of a pristine condition as we can.”
The candidates disagreed on an assault weapon ban that died in Senate committee last legislative session.
Schwartzkopf said he supports a ban on assault weapons.
“Had it made it to the House, I would have voted for it,” Schwartzkopf said. “The bill didn't take away weapons. It said we're not going sell any more in Delaware, not to let you have any more.”
“We have expanded the term assault weapon to everything that anyone wants to include from a hunting rifle to a shotgun. These are not assault weapons ... These are hunting rifles that look like an M16 or what everyone thinks is an assault rifle,” he said.
Senate District 6 race
In the race for Senate, both candidates agreed resources are needed for drug rehabilitation, more money is needed for Sussex County roads and clean water should be a priority.
Baker said using the Troop 7 building for drug rehabilitation is a good idea, but if that falls through, the Stockley Center near Georgetown should be considered. Funding for long-term care should be examined as well, he said.
“We need to look at extending stays so people who have these problems can get long-term rehabilitation, which is a need here,” he said.
Lopez said tax incentives for private companies is one way to bring rehab facilities to the area, but centers should be proposed in transportation improvement districts so that developers are paying to improve roads there.
“We need to work to make sure we have the data to see where it can make the most sense,” he said.
On the topic of transportation money, Lopez said he has worked to bring money to Sussex County. He said in 2011, $90 million was spent on transportation for Sussex County, which increased to $170 million for the 2019 fiscal year. “We're moving in the right direction to make sure we're getting the right funds. Over the course of the next six years, we're going to get close to a billion dollars in transportation funding coming to this area,” he said.
Three years ago, Lopez said, he voted for a bill that dedicates money for Sussex County out of the transportation trust fund. This fiscal year, he said, 15 percent of the fund will go to transportation costs, increasing to 16 percent in 2020, 18 percent in fiscal year 2021. In fiscal year 2022, it rises to 28 percent, then 35 percent and 38 percent.
“I was proud to cast that vote and make that investment,” he said.
Baker said Sussex County needs a bigger piece of the pie for road improvements. “We have to increase the amount of funding we receive for major capital road improvements, not maintenance … it has to go up,” he said.
Delaware Department of Transportation also needs to require a fair share of funds from developers for developments they build. “We've got to ask for a lot more than just the entrance to the development, or the turn lanes or the traffic light to get into the development,” he said. “We've got to do quite a bit more. We have to ask for a fair share of funds that will help with local roads.”
Baker said transportation infrastructure districts are a good idea to help coordinate between county and state to provide fees so developers can help pay for local roads. “It's sorely needed,” he said.
On protecting the coast, Lopez said he sponsored and co-sponsored legislation to protect the Cape Region coastline from offshore drilling.
Looking forward, he said, legislation is needed to put more teeth into enforcement.
“We've done a lot of good work on the offshore side, we need to do a better job on clean water here in our communities,” he said. “I think it's time to draft legislation that moves the enforcement piece from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Justice.”
Baker agreed with legislation to protect the coast from oil drilling, and he said agriculture runoff is still an issue and centralized sewer systems are needed to protect area waterways.
He said he agrees that DNREC needs to beef up its enforcement, and it could work with Department of Justice employees to inspect industrial operations, poultry processing and wastewater treatment on an unannounced basis instead of relying on industry to test itself.
“That has not worked, especially in the poultry industry. We need to keep the businesses and all the wastewater providers honest and make them good stewards of the environment,” Baker said.
On assault weapons, candidates had differences.
Baker said he supports banning bump stocks, prohibiting mentally ill people from owning weapons and said he would have supported the proposed bill that would have prohibited the sale of assault-style weapons.
“I'm concerned about gun safety. I don't see the need for that type of weapon here,” he said.
Lopez said he would consider potential legislation, but would not commit support.
“The majority of the most violent weapons that we have that cause the most damage are already illegal,” he said. “At this time I'm not able to make a decision whether I would vote up or down on the bill without seeing it.”