Fenwick talks money, approves budget and fire company fee

Money talks, and the Fenwick Island Town Council talked money at their May 27 meeting.

The council approved the Fiscal Year 2017 Financial Plan, with a balanced budget of $2,026,775.

There have been no real estate property tax rate increases in more than a decade for Fenwick’s 817 properties, including Town properties

Some properties may pay slightly different tax rates, based on when the house was assessed.

“Our assessment is significantly different for Fenwick and Sussex County, and that happened when we replaced our house,” said Mayor Gene Langan. “Fenwick reassessed us, and the County didn’t. That’s why there’s a difference.”

Some of Fenwick’s biggest revenue sources are property taxes ($682,000), gross rental receipts tax ($275,000), realty transfer tax ($274,000) and building permit fees ($175,000), totaling about $1.4 million, or 69 percent of the budget.

Salaries and associated employee costs are Fenwick’s largest chunks of the expense side of the budget: police (27.5 percent), administration (15.9 percent), lifeguards (12.7 percent) and public works (9 percent).

Lifeguard costs jumped up by about $30,000 this year because Fenwick added about nine days of coverage, plus $1,200 for the junior lifeguard camp. Town Manager Merritt Burke IV said the Town is paying the market rate to attract good talent but not overpay.

Fenwick will have another year of 24/7 public safety coverage, despite ever-increasing employee costs.

Fenwick is still offering competitive salaries and professional growth opportunities to staff, to encourage high level of customer service, Burke said. Meanwhile, they’re still applying for grants.

“I’m not sure of many projects that have been paid for with 100 percent local money since I’ve been here,” Burke said.

“I think we’re one of the only towns that doesn’t hire a lot of seasonal administrative staff, which is a challenge,” and sometimes more is needed, he said.

The budget process included two public meetings, and Burke thanked the citizens who commented and asked questions.

Approving the fire fee

The Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company recently requested emergency funding for a paid firefighters program. Concerned with the potential for future shortages of volunteer firefighters, the BBVFC wants to ensure they’re adequately staffed all summer. Only about eight of the air-pack certified volunteers can get to the fire hall in a timely manner during summer, Burke said.

The fire company wants one paid employee to be present 24 hours a day from May 1 to Sept. 30, using 25 part-time staffers.

The BBVFC has requested funding from the four biggest entities in their coverage area — the ones who already assess a yearly fee to property owners for ambulance service from the fire company: the towns of Fenwick Island, South Bethany and Bethany Beach, and the Sea Colony development.

The Fenwick town council agreed to pay $4,679 of the $42,824 price tag for the full-time paid firefighter coverage, based on their share of the population.

“This is one-time?” Bunting asked. “That’s the only way I would vote for this.”

Councilwoman Julie Lee suggested Fenwick host a fire department fundraiser during the fall festival, an idea several people said they liked.

“We already do a number of fundraisers. There’s point where you run out of staff,” said Councilman and BBVFC member Richard Mais. “There are a number of fundraising avenues — this is kind of a new problem for us. It just kind of came up.”

After settling the summer’s schedule, the fire company will brainstorm funding mechanisms for the future.

In other Fenwick Island news:

• The town council approved the following fee increases: hearing fee (from $275 to $500, which pays cost of town solicitor); summer parking permit fee (from $300 to $350); and additional blue parking tags (from $75 to $150, only one per property owner).

The existing $53 ambulance fee was officially added to the fee schedule, and waste collection fee reduced from $299 to $269.

• Fenwick may consider establishing a fund for canal dredging (which Langan said he doesn’t remember ever discussing in his seven-year tenure) and beach replenishment.

The federal government has local beaches on a 50-year maintenance plan, with three-year rotations for renourishment. But project funding is still tentative, so Fenwick has socked away some money, expecting a day when Congress and the State of Delaware no longer foot 100 percent of the bill.

However, Fenwick’s account has “minimal funds. I think it has $35,000,” Langan said. “In the future, we’re probably going to have to contribute to beach replenishment.”

(In contrast, Bethany Beach recently established its Storm Emergency Relief Fund, or SERF, which does not specifically address beach replenishment costs but is instead intended to help fund replacement of infrastructure, such as the boardwalk and municipal buildings, and cleanup of debris in the event of major damage from a storm or other natural disaster.)

• The Town’s new website is up and running at www.fenwickisland.delaware.gov. It has news, meeting notices, emergency updates, committees, laws and more.

Agendas and meeting minutes are being moved to the Town Code site at www.ecode360.com/FE1574.

By using the free State program, Fenwick will save money on website costs. Burke thanked the Town team for months of hard work to make this “much better than the old site. I’m not going to say that it’s perfect. It’s not. We’re going to continue to make it better. … [If anything looks wrong], email me a recommendation or suggestion.”

• During executive session, the town council voted to proceed with their attorney’s recommendation on legal matters. Council Members Bill Weistling and Diane Tingle would not go into details about the vote, except to say it was the least expensive of the options presented by the town solicitor.

• Emergency notifications for the town are available by cell phone, using Nixle emergency notifications.

“It’s totally free to us,” said Police Chief William Boyden. “Anybody can sign on anywhere in the world and get any kind of alerts from the town” for traffic, special events or major storms.

People can request alerts from just Fenwick Island or all of Delaware.

Interested people can visit the Town website, click the “Nixle” link on the left side, click the “Residents” link, and register for Town of Fenwick Island updates.

• The Fenwick Locals Program was recently created in an effort to strengthen the relationship between local residents and businesses. Each business will create its own special or discount that anyone in the 19944 ZIP code can use (including the municipality, unincorporated areas and Route 54 corridor). The free program will be administered by the Fenwick Island Business Development Committee.

• In response to concerns about parking enforcement, Lee reminded the public that any form of illegal parking is a violation of the law. Police have their priorities, but citizens may call them with parking complaints.

“Do not think commercial vehicles are being treated differently from any other vehicles when parking on the streets,” Lee said.

• Mobi-Mats will be laid on beach crossovers as the State of Delaware finishes dune repair work.

• The Town bonfire is set for Sunday, July 3, from 7 to 10 p.m.

• The Fenwick Homecoming Harvest Festival will be held Sunday, Oct. 9, from noon to 4 p.m. Events include a beach run obstacle course, inflatables, children’s activities and possibly a local beer garden.

That Columbus Day weekend will also begin Fenwick Fridays, a series of local wintertime business specials.

• Suspecting that other residents have similar questions, Mayor Gene Langan posted an open-letter response to recent questions about zoning changes, waste removal management fees, residential versus commercial rental tax rates and more.

• Town council members agreed they aren’t ready to begin “re-branding” the community, tabling a proposal to accept a $5,000 matching grant to hire a professional advertising consultant.

The Business Development Committee had recommended the Town participate in a state program to fund business initiatives. The designer would set up shop at Town Hall, research the town and create a brand, logo and tagline for Fenwick Island, to be presented at a public reveal. The Town Council would approve where and how to use it, such as stationary, banners and more.

Lee questioned spending that money when the Town already has a lighthouse logo. She said she wanted to be sure it’s a full public-private partnership, as stated in a previous council resolution. She asked if Fenwick was getting full feedback from other businesses.

Mais said the BD Committee includes business owners who talk to other entrepreneurs in town.

But Lee said she wanted the town council to slow down and take advantage of the program affiliation that already gives Fenwick access to networking and training opportunities designed to give Fenwick businesses a boost.

“I think we need to be very careful, as a town, how we spend money,” Lee said.

Council Members Gardner Bunting and Roy Williams said they were comfortable waiting for a public workshop discussion of the issue.

Burke said he will research if a guest speaker can come and how long the grant money will be available.

The town council’s next regular meeting is Friday, June 17, at 3:30 p.m.