County council reviews budget for 2016 fiscal year

This week, the Sussex County Council was presented with a proposed budget for the fiscal year 2016, at $128.6 million.

As it stands, there is no change in the County property tax rate or general fund fees in the proposed budget.

“That makes 26 years in a row that the County will not raise property taxes,” said Todd Lawson, county administrator.

For every tax dollar, 54 cents is spent on public safety; 15 cents is spent on libraries; 10 cents on code enforcement, Planning & Zoning, permitting and addressing; 9 cents on general government; 8 cents on special services; and 4 cents on housing rehabilitation and community support.

Lawson said working with department heads to pinpoint each department’s priorities was beneficial.

“This year, we did it a little differently… We asked department directors to come in with their recommendations to us and keep their requests to the 2 percent maximum growth,” he said. “It made this year’s drafting of budget a little more seamless for us, because the directors were able to tell us from beginning what their priorities were.”

As healthcare costs continue to increase, the County projects increasing costs by 7.7 percent over last year, for a total of $8.1 million cost for its 500 employees.

“Healthcare is driving some of our significant costs. We are predicting a $583,000 increase over last year,” he said. “Like many municipalities, we are facing those increased costs and having to determine what to do about it.”

Lawson said that, since 2009, the County has reduced its workforce by 10 percent (53 positions) through attrition or retirement. Although five new full-time employees are proposed in the coming fiscal year, the net increase is just two employees.

Within the proposed budget is the purchase of Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal or CAMA Assessment Software as a capital project.

“Currently, our assessment office does everything by hand and by paper. Literally, they will go out and visit a property and draw on paper a sketch of the property. That sketch comes back to the office and a staff person inside this building will draw a final draft of the property and then utilize those measurements to assess the property, which then runs through our famous formula to create our tax property amount.”

Lawson said that, currently, the only automated part of the process is when a property’s tax bill is printed.

“This CAMA system will do that entire process with enhanced technology. The assessor on the street will have a tablet where there are directions to the property. There is a Google map that shows the workflow for the day; there’s a parcel ID and property information contained. Then there’s an actual draft of the property…

“The assessor on street does work, pushes ‘submit,’ and that information is shot back to this building and put into our computer system. It takes the manual element out of the way they work now.”

Lawson said the CAMA software will also backup more than 160,000 paper parcel cards stored in the County building.

“Those have no backup,” he said. “This CAMA purchase will take the entire paper record and put onto computer record system. It’s a multi-year venture. We’re very, very excited about it.”

In the proposed budget, the general fund is up by $1,505,000 or 2.9 percent, for a total of $53,449,189. Of that, 31 percent, or $16.7 million, comes from realty transfer tax.

“It’s our highest revenue source,” said Finance Director Gina Jennings. “At about $1 million less is our property tax, at 29 percent, or $15.5 million. The next largest is charge is for services, at $10.8 million, which includes things like building permits, building inspection fees…”

The next largest funding source for the general fund is intergovernmental, at $6.4 million, with $4.9 million of that for emergency services provided by the State.

For the 2016 fiscal year, Jennings said, they would budget $16.7 million from realty transfer tax.

“Even though we anticipate probably $22 million, we need to be very conservative on how we budget this revenue. It’s very volatile. To be reliant on this is not a long-term plan. So we’re very conservative.”

About $13.6 million, or 25 percent of the general fund expenditures, is spent on paramedics, and $3 million spent on emergency preparedness.

“Between those two, 31 percent of our pie chart is County-owned public safety,” said Jennings.

She noted that, from 2005, when 11,600 incidents were dispatched by County EMS, the number of incidents in 2014 had increased to 15,200. Over that same time period, there was a 29 percent increase in 911 calls.

“To keep up with this demand, we also have to increase our services and expenses,” said Jennings.

Over the last 15 years, the County has given $46.6 million to fire and ambulance services within the county.

Lawson said that, since 1995, the County has had a contract with the Delaware State Police to provide extra troopers to serve the County. The County is currently paying for 44 additional troopers, along with their equipment.

“This year’s number is just over $2 million,” he said.

Jennings said the DSP is at 200 troopers assigned to the county’s three troops currently, but they are required to have only 143.

In the proposed budget connection, some fees are recommended to increase. Following an effort over the past few years to establish consistent pricing for public wastewater service, the County will continue to phase in a unified, one-time sewer connection fee for new users.

In the meantime, quarterly sewer service rates for existing and new customers — the County currently serves 59,420 customers — will increase by $8 in most cases; one district, Long Neck, will increase by $12.57.

Those who wish to see the budget and related presentation may do so at The County Council will hold a public hearing on the proposal during its 10 a.m. meeting Tuesday, June 16, in council chambers at the County Administrative Offices building, 2 The Circle, in Georgetown. The public can comment in person on that date or submit comments through the web, at By law, the Council must adopt a budget by June 30.