Despite extended recession, County looks good

Times have been tough in recent years — not just here, but everywhere. Real estate has taken a hit, the job market has been strained and people are owing more on college loans than ever before.

We have all read or seen stories on rising crime, towns going bankrupt and banks closing their doors. This has been a recession that has put on blinders, moving straight ahead at everyone, in every class and every walk of life. All that being said, Sussex County government has been able to weather the storm for the most part, and the 2013-fiscal-year budget that was released earlier this week shows some signs of life for both the present and future, despite some obvious roadblocks.

Consider the following statistic: In 2004, Sussex County received $33.6 million in realty transfer tax monies. In 2009, that was down to $13.62 million, and they have budgeted what officials termed a “new norm” of $13.2 million for next year. That is still the major breadwinner for the County in terms of revenue, followed by property taxes and charges for services from constitutional offices (such as the Sheriff’s Office).

That third revenue stream is more of the “bad news” variety, according to County Administrator Todd Lawson. “Unfortunately,” he explained, “that is because of the high amount of foreclosures.”

Now, all of that would be the bad news.

On the flip side, there was a surplus from the last fiscal year that will allow the County to do some things this year they haven’t been able to do for a few years. For instance, local law-enforcement grants from the County are returning to their 2009 level of $25,000. Also, there will be a one-time tax credit for county taxpayers, meaning the average county tax bill for a single-family home will drop to just below $100 annually.

Now, this projected budget for the County of $121.1 million is down from the current budget, but much of that is because the five major sewer projects the County has been doing in recent years has been completed. It’s important to note that there are no fee or tax increases in this year’s proposed budget — a sign that County officials are feeling comfortable with where the finances are at this time.

Another strong sign from this proposed budget is that there are cost-of-living increases built in for staff, as well as retired staffers with a County pension. Raises are often sacrificed by businesses and governmental bodies when times are tough, and the fact that the County is going ahead with these is yet another example of good vibes from officials.

Certainly the County would like to see realty transfer tax dollars increase in the future, as does every town, city, county and state in the country. But they have managed to keep the County’s finances humming despite a nationwide recession, and they deserve to be recognized for that. We thank the County for being responsible with our money, as well as providing as many services as possible to the community.