Earlier this week, the Sussex County Council reviewed its $143.8 million draft budget for the 2018 fiscal year.
In a presentation by County Administrator Todd Lawson and County Finance Director Gina Jennings at the May 16 council meeting, the council was first given a rundown as to the highlights of the previous fiscal year’s budget.
The 2017 budget included digitizing county zoning maps, adding $104 million to the assessment rolls, scanning more than 170,000 property record cards to be accessed online and assisting more than 200 households with housing repairs.
In the 2017 fiscal year, the County processed 21 changes of zone, 24 conditional uses, 20 subdivisions, 120 site plans and 209 Board of Adjustment applications. They maintained more than 69,000 sewer accounts and completed seven annexations to the unified sanitary sewer district, and taxable assessments increased by 3.5 percent.
In the fiscal year, there were more than 23,800 calls for EMS service, a 5 percent increase from the 2016 fiscal year. The EMS scene-arrival time improved by 12 percent.
Lawson noted that in the 2018 budget, the General Fund is up $13.8 million. Staff recommended an additional $10 million contribution to pension funds, an $836,000 increase in public safety, and earmarking $600,000 for economic development.
Library funding for the coming fiscal year is proposed to be $5.5 million, a $262,000 increase.
The proposed budget does not include a change in the property tax rate, sewer and water service charges, or building permit fees.
“Even though there are no tax increases, we did take a look at some of our fees,” said Jennings.
The County plans to implement a $20 recording fee, similar to that in New Castle County.
According to Jennings, it can take staff in the bureau office up to two hours to complete the task of recording marriage license returns in the web marriage system. Had the County implemented and charged a $20 recording fee for the 1,620 marriage licenses issued in the 2016 fiscal year, the county would’ve received an additional $29,840 in revenue.
Out-of-office marriage ceremony fees would be raised by $25 dollars, with the charge being $100 for residents and $175 for non-residents.
The County plans to add a plan review fee — wherein a percentage of the original fee will be charged per review. For instance, for a subdivision, the current fee structure has a flat fee of $2,000 plus $42 per unit for two reviews, with additional reviews costing $20 per unit. The proposed fee would be a flat fee of $2,500 plus $42 per unit for two reviews. The third review would then cost 60 percent of the original fee, the fourth 50 percent, and so forth.
The County also plans to change the current rate for bulk water users from $3 per gallon to $4 per gallon. The fee for wastewater holding tank discharge could be lowered from $500 to $100.
The County proposes to budget a collection of $20.1 million in realty transfer tax in operations.
“We need to spend some of that in capital… I want to caution that if the State were to cut any realty transfer tax that it would have an effect on our budget, since we are using most of it, whether it’s in operation or in capital,” explained Jennings.
For every dollar of realty tax and property tax spent by the County, 55 cents will be spent on public safety.
“Clearly the largest category within our budget,” said Lawson, noting the next largest amount is 15 cents of each dollar, which goes to the general running of the County government.
The council also introduced a few ordinances that would have an impact if the proposed budget were to be approved. One would limit the tax credit to only the buyer’s half of the 1.5 percent for first-time homebuyers.
“This is what New Castle County does, and we feel it follows the original intent of the credit that the State put in the Code,” said Jennings. “What we are asking is that the buyer still be exempt but the seller pay their .75 percent. So, the County will receive .75 percent on any of the first-time homebuyer credit.”
The County is also looking to change its realty transfer grant. Currently if a municipality does not collect at least $20,000, the County will grant that town or city $15,000. Staff proposed that the County change the ordinance to pay the difference between what is collected and $20,000.
“Let’s take a look at the Town of Frankford,” said Jennings. “In Fiscal-’13, they collected $8,826. We gave them $15,000 because they didn’t collect $20,000. What we’re recommending is, let’s give all the towns equal footing… Under this proposal, they would then collect $11,174.”
Public safety a focus
Through an agreement with the Delaware State Police, Sussex County has supplemented the police coverage in the county for nearly 20 years, as there was a call for more protection.
“The County stepped up and has contributed millions of dollars over the nearly 20 years to add troopers to Sussex County’s coverage,” said Lawson.
He said that the County was recently contacted by the State and asked to revisit their agreement with the state police.
“In summary, they would like to arrange a new agreement with the County whereby … we will now assume the full total and real cost of 22 troopers here in Sussex County.”
Lawson said the minimum staffing levels of 187 troopers would remain in place; the trooper-first-class salary cap would be eliminated and replaced with funding for a rank structure equivalent to the rank structure of the State Police, not to exceed the rank of lieutenant; funding for master corporal, sergeant and lieutenant would be capped at a Step 21 (20 years of service, pension eligible); patrol shift differential pay would now be included for 21 of the 22 troopers (excluding lieutenant) at a total cost of $42,000 per year; special pays of troopers with additional duties, such as special operations and canine, would account for an increased estimated cost of $3,900 per year.
Overtime for the 22 troopers would be funded at the divisional average cost of overtime for a patrol trooper ($7,422 per trooper) for a total cost of $169,000. The new agreement would continue to require funding for four fully-outfitted patrol vehicles.
“This proposal will cost the County additional money,” said Lawson. “As a result, we’ve asked senior leadership within the State Police to consider maintaining the current staffing levels of 192, and they are taking that request under consideration.”
“We’re looking at a $2.9 million contract,” said Jennings. “As we were preparing the budget, we already knew what our contract was going to look like in 2018. That was supposed to be $2.3 million… Now we’re seeing a $678,866 increase.
“We can still support this using savings that we have currently.”
Jennings showed that if council chose not to support the $678,866 increase, it would result, money-wise, in a decrease of five troopers.
Councilman Rob Arlett said he was concerned the State asked the County to increase its funding for State Police coverage by 30 percent without adding a single trooper.
“That is of great concern to me. In the end, yes, we have to work together. Yes, we will continue to work with them, but it’s their responsibility.”
Arlett asked if the State Police said whether or not they would decrease the coverage by five officers if the County does not fund the increase.
“No they have not,” said Lawson.
“I think we need to have more dialogue as it relates to that. This County has grown population-wise significantly… I’m not so sure we’re getting the increase in protection as it relates to that increase in population. It’s not the Delaware State Police — it’s the legislature and the governor… That is of great concern to me, and I’m not sure where it’s going to go.”
Public safety makes up 61 percent of grants to be given out by the County, with 38 percent of the County’s expenditures going to public safety.
“That’s about $35.9 million of the County’s total expenditures,” said Lawson.
Councilman George Cole asked if there was any money earmarked to address homelessness, the drug epidemic or perhaps other issues that face the County.
Jennings said there is $10,000 set aside for the County’s homelessness initiative, as well as a contingency account with $600,000 set aside for other initiatives.
Cole also asked if the proposed budget also has funding available to hire people to do additional enforcement, as the County has been known to be complaint-driven.
“I’d like to take a stab at this with current staffing levels that we have and see how effective we are,” said Lawson.
Cole added that he believes the County should look into hiring a full-time County attorney.
“I think the County is getting to a size… I see a system where we need a full-time County attorney in-house and still have retained attorneys. I’d love for us to see us starting to think about a full-time County attorney, because when our departments need legal help, it would be in-house.”
Council President Michael Vincent thanked Lawson, Jennings and the rest of the County staff for their time and effort on the proposed budget.
“This budget makes some serious investments for Sussex County’s future, and I think the public appreciates once again their government responding to their needs without breaking the bank.”
The council will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget during its 10 a.m. meeting on Tuesday, June 13. The public is being invited to comment in person on that date, or submit comments through email to email@example.com. By law, the council must adopt a budget by June 30.
To view a copy of the proposed 2018-fiscal-year budget, as well as the accompanying budget presentation, visit www.sussexcountyde.gov/county-budget.
Also during the May 16 meeting, the council interviewed Ellen Magee, a nominee to serve on the County’s Board of Adjustment.
“I am a business owner, a life-long resident of Sussex County. I was born and raised here. I know the county pretty well. I’m proud of what we have and where we live. I think I will look at the different applications, ask questions. I have pretty good common sense. I think I would do a good job.”
Magee said her qualifications include serving as the president of the Delaware Burn Camp, as well as serving as a lifetime member of the Roxana Fire Department’s Ladies’ Auxiliary, where she has served as president and vice-president.
Magee also noted that having passed a principles-of-real-estate course in 2012, along with being a business owner, gives her a good background to make BOA-related decisions.
She said she knows of no known conflicts of interest, but if one to were arise, she would recuse herself from any application before the board.
Cole went on to press the topic, stating that the board has been criticized as handing out variances “like candy.”
“Do you think you will weigh the law more, so than an applicant coming in and saying they have a financial reason…?” he asked.
“I think that law is what we need to go by. I don’t think I’ll have an issue. I have too much of my mother.”
Magee was unanimously appointed to the board with a 5-0 vote. Her term is set to expire in June 2019.
Arlett thanked Magee’s predecessor, Jeff Hudson, for his nearly 20 years of service on the board.
During public comments, former state senator George Bunting spoke about concerns related to public safety.
“Years ago, I came before this body, proposing a county police force, as those I represented wanted more protection,” which led to the creation of the County subsidizing of state troopers.
Bunting recommended a meeting of county officials and Sussex law-enforcement officials to discuss ideas, moving forward, to prevent crime.
“I like Councilman Cole’s idea of promoting Neighborhood Watch programs and other proactive measures. All of us have the obligation to report things that could lead to preventing a crime or solving one.”
He noted the importance of community participation in the success of keeping the county safe.