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Del. panel grants infrastructure funding requests

Randall Chase, Associated Press

DOVER, Del. (AP) -- Members of a state panel that doles out infrastructure-related funding for business projects stretched their own rules Wednesday in giving almost $300,000 to Delaware Technical and Community College to buy equipment.

The money was included in a $558,800 grant that the Infrastructure Investment Committee awarded Delaware Tech to establish a new airplane engine maintenance training program in Georgetown.

The committee's rules prohibit the granting of money for equipment that is not directly infrastructure-related, with the permissible exceptions including piping, pumps and motors.

"As a general matter, it's not allowable," deputy attorney general Lawrence Lewis said when committee members sought his legal advice.

But the panel nevertheless agreed to give Delaware Tech $288,200 for equipment including storage bins and cabinets, carts, work benches and stools. The approved funding includes more than $100,000 for two aircraft engine cutaways, almost $45,000 for magnetos, $36,000 for an instrument trainer, and more than $15,000 for carburetors.

State Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt suggested that any equipment funded by the committee should be "stuff that makes the infrastructure go."

"As I read this list, this is stuff that makes the school go," he said.

Despite his reservations, Bhatt joined other committee members in approving the equipment funding, with only one member dissenting.

"I think it's a stretch for the $288,000," Bhatt said, warning that the committee could be setting a precedent for similar requests by other applicants.

"We may be creating a problem for ourselves down the road," he said.

But state Sen. Robert Venables, D-Laurel, urged fellow panel members to help Del Tech buy a "little bit" of equipment needed for the new aviation program.

Delaware Tech currently has an airframe maintenance program at the Sussex County Airport but wants to add an airplane power plant program to teach students how to work on aircraft engines.

"To me, this is one of the best things we've had to continue to create high-paying jobs," Venables said.

The "New Jobs Infrastructure Fund" overseen by the committee was established two years ago as part of an effort by the Markell administration to try to attract new businesses to Delaware and help existing businesses expand. Before approving any requests for infrastructure assistance, the committee must find that the project will create "a significant number of direct, permanent, quality, full-time jobs" and would serve a public purpose by enhancing the state's infrastructure needs.

According to minutes of the committee's May meeting, at which Delaware Tech's request was tabled, the school originally requested money not for infrastructure assistance, but for equipment and staffing for the new aviation program. After questions were raised about using infrastructure money for personnel, Delaware Tech dropped the staffing assistance request and instead sought $270,600 for site clearance work and paving.

"The only thing really being added here is a parking lot to an existing building," said state Rep. Quinn Johnson, D-Middletown.

But state Economic Development Director Alan Levin said the site improvements will benefit not just Delaware Tech, but the entire Sussex airport.

In discussing the job creation requirement, committee members acknowledged that the new aircraft power plant program will result directly in only a handful of new jobs at Delaware Tech.

But Levin said graduates of the program will be in high demand by companies such as Dassault Falcon, which has an aircraft service and maintenance facility at New Castle Airport.

"The only way to create these jobs is to provide this training," Levin said. "It could be viewed as a stretch ... but I think it keeps us squarely within the intent of the guidelines."