The Sussex County Council this week reviewed the County’s proposed $117.3 million budget for the 2015 fiscal year. The proposed budget is down by $400,000, nearly .3 percent, from the current year’s $117.7 million budget.
According to administrative officials, the decrease is mostly the result of reduced expenses in both the general and sewer fund portions of the budget, as projects including the new Greenwood Library and the first phase of the Sussex County Airport Runway 4-22 extension were paid for and completed in the current budget year.
The proposed budget keeps in place the County’s property tax rate of 44.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. The average County tax bill for a single-family home remains around $100 annually, not including school district taxes.
“We have to take a very conservative approach. We have developed budget with measured growth, because it must remain at a sustainable level. As a result, the budget revenues are increased by a modest level of 2 percent,” said County Administrator Todd Lawson.
“While the transfer tax trajectory is expected to continue to climb for the second year, we are only budgeting at $16 million. That revenue amount is $4 million below our forecasted amount but half of what it was in 2006.”
Lawson was joined by Finance Director Gina Jennings and Deputy Finance Director Kathy Roth in proposing the 2015 budget, for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Proposed in next year’s budget are new sewer connection and service fees. Following an effort over the past few years to establish consistent pricing for public wastewater service, the County will begin phasing in a unified, one-time sewer connection fee for new users. Quarterly sewer service rates for existing and new customers — the County currently serves approximately 58,872 users — will increase by $8 in most cases; in one district, Long Neck, they will increase by $15.
In the 2015 fiscal year, many increases in building- and real estate-related revenues are projected, including a 30 percent increase in projected in deeds, with building permits anticipated to increase by 24 percent.
Lawson noted that foreclosures within the county have leveled off, which is an “indication of what’s happening in the market,” with a 50 percent reduction.
Lawson noted that, since 2009, the County has reduced its workforce by 10 percent, or 56 positions.
“What does that mean? From a cost perspective, the cost for employees decreased by $1.5 million,” said Lawson. “Less employees, less cost.”
Lawson said, however, that the County continues to feel the pressure to provide a high level of service to its residents. With that in mind, the 2015 budget recommends hiring five new fulltime employees and six new part-time employees.
He noted that the part-time employees would be used “as a model to really determine if the need exists,” adding that legacy costs don’t exist with part-time employees.
A 2 percent cost of living adjustment (COLA) for employees was also included in the draft budget. Other benefits, including health insurance, vacation, sick leave and holidays, remain intact, while a new 3 percent salary contribution plan for new hires after Jan. 1, 2014, would go into effect. The zero-contribution pension plan for employees on staff prior to Jan. 1 will remain in place.
Councilman Vance Phillips said he was concerned that the County’s employees are due a raise “across the board.”
“We have asked more of our County employees… We are down 10 percent of our workforce from a peak,” he said. “The employees do excellent work. They are well paid on average. Our employees make good money. But when it comes to the COLA, I think it’s an unfair way to treat those on the lower scale of the salary level.”
Phillips said that he believes that employees making $20,000 probably need a raise more than those who have higher salaries.
“We need to think about this, maybe capping it at $1,000,” he said, “Reformulating, to give that money to those employees lower on the scale.”
While the overall budget is down, the general fund portion of the 2015 budget is expected to rise by 3.6 percent, or $1.8 million. That is due, in part, to an expected surplus later this year, as well as an expected increase in investment income, new assessments from new construction and a continued rise in building inspection fee collections.
The general fund portion of the budget pays for day-to-day operations and services offered by County government.
Other budgetary highlights include:
• Grants to fire companies, police departments, libraries and community groups are either maintained at current levels or increased in some cases. In the case of volunteer fire and ambulance companies, the County expects to distribute more than $3.4 million next year, up $100,000, thanks to an increase in building permit revenue;
• The inclusion of $230,000 in funding to continue the County’s efforts to digitize records, including a planned shift from paper to e-records for Planning & Zoning application cases and maps for online public inspection;
• Realty transfer taxes will continue to be the County’s largest source of income, with $16 million budgeted in the 2015 fiscal year, though the final collected amount — as it has been in 2014 — could run higher. Any revenue collected over that $16 million figure will be deposited directly into capital for future projects, officials said.
The Sussex County Council will hold a public hearing on the proposal during its 10 a.m. meeting on Tuesday, June 17. The public can comment in person on that date or submit comments through email at firstname.lastname@example.org. By law, the council must adopt a budget by June 30.
A copy of the proposed 2015 budget, as well as the accompanying budget presentation, can be downloaded from the County’s website at www.sussexcountyde.gov/county-budget.