Middletown Mayor Kenneth Branner discusses his 25-year career in office, including his accomplishments, disappointments, and where he sees the town headed in the next 25 years.
Middletown Mayor Kenneth Branner marked his 25th year in office earlier this month, making him one of the longest-serving Delaware mayors currently in office.
A former Middletown High football standout whose father served on town council before him, Branner held positions as the chief of Volunteer Hose Company and director of the MOT Little League before running for office in 1989.
During his tenure, Middletown’s population has grown by 500 percent from about 3,700 residents in 1990 to nearly 20,000 today, an explosive rate that hasn’t been without its share of growing pains.
Last week, the grandfather of four sat down with the Middletown Transcript to talk about his political career, his accomplishments, disappointments and where he sees Middletown headed over the next 25 years.
Q Why did you first run for mayor in 1989?
A I’d been on [Middletown Planning & Zoning] 10 years prior to running for mayor. It was a difficult decision because one of my mentors all the way through the fire company and through planning and zoning was [Mayor Charles Price].
I just felt at the time that things were starting to break loose and I had a lot to offer. I went to him first before I filed and told him what I thought … I just told him I thought maybe I could do a better job.
Honestly I was shocked because he said, ‘You will. You’ll be better than I am.’ But he said, ‘I’m not going to drop [out]. I’m going to run and I wish you all the luck in the world.’
After I won, he was one of my biggest supporters in the world right up until he passed away a few years ago … If he had not supported the fact that I wanted to run, I probably wouldn’t have.
Q What were some of the biggest issues the town was facing when you took office?
We made the decision way back then to be aggressive and do an annexation program because development was really starting to take place below the canal and we realized it was going to come south and if we didn’t annex and make it under our municipal limits then the county or any building would come right up and we would have no say. We’d sort of be blocked in … So we brought in a lot of farms, thinking sometime down the road we would build and that’s what gave us our future growth area … We realized if you don’t have the utilities and an expanding tax base the only thing you can do to survive is to grow.
It’s like what some of the smaller municipalities like Odessa are faced with now. The only way they can generate funds is though a little development and then increase [taxes]. It’s a shame and we didn’t want to get to that point.
After we decided to grow, we had to figure out how to accommodate it with water, sewer and electric, which led us to the wastewater treatment plant expansion and upgrade to our electric substation and water system.
Q What else did you encounter, maybe that you didn’t expect?
A When I first came on in ’89 our budget was $250,000. Now it’s $43 million. I remember my first year asking, ‘Why did I do this?’
That first year, we had to figure out who to pay from month to month because we didn’t have enough money to pay them all. The town clerk would call some of them and say, ‘We’ll pay you next month.’ I didn’t realize that coming in. But we made some changes and came to where we are now. We only had eight employees when I started and four of them were on the trash truck. We had two trash trucks and a very small municipal group.
The water system was in such disrepair that we had to repair all the mains, and we did it in the winter, believe it or not. We had water lines laying on top of the ground in order to continue feeding the residents. We did that in ’89-’90 and then the wastewater treatment plant in 2000, and thank God we did that because when developers want to come the first thing they ask is, ‘Do you have water, sewer and electric?’ And the second one is, ‘How fast can you do it.’ They never even get to rates. That’s the last thing. That’s one of the reasons we got Amazon and it opened the door to a hell of a lot more [commercial projects] we’re talking to now.
Q How did you eventually determine the town needed a sewer treatment plant of its own?
A We had an agreement with the county going back to right after I became mayor. Dennis Greenhouse was county executive and they wanted to expand [the treatment plant in] Odessa but the only way they could go to bond was by having a commitment from somebody else to purchase sewer. So Dennis came to me … and asked if we would partner with them and we made a commitment to buy half of the capacity, 500,000 gallons, of which we paid for a quarter up front. We paid $60,000 for that, which I can’t imagine what it’s worth now. The agreement was the county executive could call for the other 250,000 gallons if they needed it or we wanted it.
The county executive after Dennis asked for the commitment and we didn’t have the money. So they said, ‘Okay, you voided the contract and you don’t get the sewer capacity.’ That forced us to build the wastewater treatment plant. And then they turned around, believe it or not, and purchased capacity back from us when we did the flip. It worked great for us …
[B]ut that was a $28 million referendum. That was scary. There was a lot of controversy about spray irrigation because it was a new technology. People didn’t understand it at the time … There were a lot of nervous council members when we went to referendum. I think I went to 18 or 19 public meetings just to explain what we wanted to do.
And we made a commitment then that any money we got through development, we would never use for budget and we would not increase our taxes to pay off bond debt. And we’ve never done that in my 25 years.
Q Would you count that among your greatest accomplishments in office?
A That and our electric upgrades. And we’re still doing electric upgrades. We have the dual 138Kv line coming in and that will give us a loop system so we’ll always have a back feed where we won’t have to have a shutdown like we did [March 22]. Johnson Controls can know if we have an electric outage we can bring a feed in another way. And that’s part of our final upgrade.
So those things, but also staying true to what we told the residents. We promised them we wouldn’t impact their quality of life. I was bred, born and raised here and most of the council have lived here their whole life. And we made that commitment and stuck to it.
Q Is there a time you look back on and think, ‘That was as dark as it got?’
A I guess when people don’t trust you or don’t trust what you’re saying. You know in your mind that what you’re doing is in the best interests of the town, but some people sort of doubt that. When we did our first referendum, there was what we call Old Town and there was nothing around outside. Everybody knew everybody and it’s wasn’t like it is now. And the second referendum was almost like that. So you’re talking to people that you’ve grown up with and it’s easy to talk to them.
Now, people are coming from other areas, where it might be a little bit different, and the hardest part is trying to convince people to believe you when you’re telling them the truth. I say, ‘Believe me, we will stay true to our word.’ And they say, ‘Yeah, but where I came from they said the same thing.’ You can’t take it personal. You have to show people you mean what you say and the result of your actions are what convince people to put the same people back in [office].
Q Many town residents say they also miss the way Middletown used to be, that small-town feel. One of the most frequent things we hear about is the traffic.
A If you really want to see traffic, go to Wilmington, go to Philadelphia, go to New York. I hear those traffic complaints. [People say,] ‘I had to sit through the light one time.’ Seriously?
We’re going to make improvements. We met with DelDOT last week and we’re going to make improvements on [Route] 299 … And then once we do the upgrades we’re going to be able to get the signals synchronized. You can’t synchronize them now because we don’t have the traffic flow to be able to coordinate the signals.
We’re going to do it from Catherine Street out. There’s not a lot we can do widening it, but we can do improvements in lanes. And then once we get on the other side of Silver Lake Road, we can do some dramatic improvements because of that 100 feet we have from the high school down to the Wawa light. We’re going to do an expansion to a four-lane road, exactly like the other side of where Wawa is. It’s in the plans and budgeted. We just need more traffic, believe it or not. The count’s not there. On Saturdays, it backs up … and at 5 o’clock at night, getting off of Route 1 … Those two times … other than that it’s a piece of cake.
Q Would it have been possible for Middletown to remain the small town it once was?
A Not and survive. Ask [Odessa Mayor] Cathy Harvey if they had their choice, what would they have done? You can’t survive and stay status quo. How would you have the money to do the water improvements? What would you have done for infrastructure? You’d send all your sewer to Odessa and what would that do to your sewer rates? How would you do your electric, when all your rates are Delmarva [Power]? It wouldn’t have been physically possible.
You just couldn’t have survived as a municipality and if you had done that. The residents would have been paying tax rates of 30 cents per $100. Give me a break. They wouldn’t have had trash pickup. They would have had a private company doing that. Their water from somebody else. Their sewer from somebody else.
That’s one of the things we’re proud of. We do everything. There’s nothing we’re dependent on anybody else for … There’s not many municipalities in the state of Delaware that do it all. Probably half a dozen, tops, that provide every service we do. That, to me, is one-stop shopping, which is a big plus to the residents we have … And now we have the police force. That’s the last thing we were paying for outside help seven years ago.
Q Where do you see Middletown 25 years from now?
A We’ll probably finish growing. I don’t see any more annexations … We’re going to fill in Westown, fill in on the east side near Dove Run. And I see us staying right there at 22,000 to 25,000 [residents]. I don’t see anything beyond that. It’s not in our plan to go beyond that and we don’t want to get any bigger than that. That was the plan 15 years ago when we did Westown and that’s where I think we’ll stay.
Our mentality has always been like Kevin Costner in “Field of Dreams.” Build it and they will come, and that’s all stayed true. We just want to stay ahead of the curve.
Q What’s your plan for the next 25 years?
A I hope I’m still alive. That would be great … [Town Councilman] Jimmy Reynolds came on one year after me … and we’ve always said when we stop enjoying it, when it gets to be a hassle and stops being fun, then we’ll stop.
When you’re having a good time, time flies. And the last 25 years seems like a day. I do enjoy it and seeing all the work we put in to get us to where we are today. And I love the fact we have a Kohl’s and a Walmart and [other things] coming. We have an Amazon and Johnson Controls, and we’re talking to all these companies. That’s a big thing.
I hear people say all the time, ‘Boy, I can’t believe we can do everything right here and not have to leave.’ That’s a big plus and makes you feel good about what you’re doing. But there’s seven of us [on town council] and everyone who works for us. The people who work here make it worth it. Residents come up to me and say, ‘Good job on the snow removal.’ Seriously? I didn’t drive one single truck and those guys busted their ass. With the workforce we have, there’s nothing we can’t do.