County council unveils 2006 budget

County Administrator Bob Stickels gave the public a first look as he introduced the proposed fiscal 2006 budget, and sewer fees, at the May 17 county council meeting. This year’s theme was “Growth Continues,” although the general fund spending actually grew at a modest rate of 2.83 percent — to $53.3 million (combined county, state and federal monies).

Total expenditures will approach $135.2 million, with nearly $25.7 million for capital improvements coming in from various local funding “pots.” Add bond funding and state and federal grants, and the county is looking at a total capital improvement budget of $54.1 million for this year.

Stickels noted $10.2 million in the “Rainy Day” fund — the county’s highest dollar amount ever in that location (but low percentage-wise, compared to past general funds) and another stepped-up public safety budget this year

At $17.5 million, he said public safety would always be the county’s No. 1 priority. “Everything else is just a bonus,” Stickels emphasized.

The paramedics program got $10 million (county share $6 million, state picks up $4 million) — the largest single item, according to the budget committee report. Some of those funds will build the entirely new paramedic Unit 108, a roving “power unit.”

The county plans to pick up four additional state police officers, and five people for the paramedic program. However, the budget committee report noted eight vacancies on the paramedic payroll, and one in emergency communications, and stressed the importance of filling those positions as well.

The committee recommended a $400 across-the-board pay raise for paramedics to promote recruiting. Elsewhere, Stickels noted increased funding for volunteer fire companies and the introduction of a revenue-sharing new program with local law enforcement — grants, $25,000 apiece, which would be available to all the municipalities.

The appropriated reserve fund topped $11.4 million this year. These are monies collected during fiscal 2004, and retained through cost savings (unspent) through fiscal 2005.

• For the second year, the budget committee has recommended county government redistribute a goodly chunk of these funds ($2 million) to the citizens, in the form of a tax credit.
• The county will award $1.77 million in sewer project grants from appropriated reserves. Side note — realty transfer taxes subsidize another $5.92 million.
• $1.2 million toward the new Sussex County Emergency Operations Center (EOC), now under construction.
• $1.2 million for the Airport Clear Zone Project.
• A one-time $850,000 whack at pension fund contributions — pending federal accounting rules will require increased funds set aside, and the county is working away at that $19.5 million difference.
• $682,000 for the North Coastal Sewer Planning Study, as the name suggests, taking place in the top half of the county.
• $525,000 for the cost-sharing with local law enforcement, as noted above.
• Community Improvements, $425,000.
• $300,000 for two library expansion projects — one of them being Bethany Beach’s South Coastal Library.
• Easter Seals, $250,000.
• Community Development Fund projects, $200,000.
• The county awards 10 percent of these funds (assuming there are any) to the Sussex County Land Trust (SCLT) and Agriculture Preservation every year, so that’s $114,000.
• $50,000 toward CHEER capital programs, and $25,000 apiece to the YMCA, Primeros Pasos (daycare program) and a senior center building project in Millsboro.

As always, Stickels advised austere grant-in-aid funding. His presentation noted a dozen or so recipients, with public safety again topping the list.

• Sussex County volunteer fire and ambulance companies — $3.17 million.
• Delaware State Police cost-sharing — $1.21 million.
• Sussex Conservation District —$126,000.
• University of Delaware (UD) Extension Service — $116,000.
• Human Service Grants — $110,000.
• Realty transfer tax revenue sharing — $105,000.
• CHEER meal program, First State Community Action — $10,000 each.
• Small Business Development Center — $7,500.
• Future Farmers of America (FFA) — $1,000.

The county will also contribute to three municipalities — $922,000 for Rehoboth Beach, $129,000 for Seaford and $88,000 for Georgetown. Although there’s some cost-sharing money for 911 systems, most of this money helps defray municipal wastewater treatment costs.

In related and local wastewater business, front footage assessments got a lower max cap, but other fees went up.

The county has proposed another reduction in the max cap on front footage assessments, down from last year’s 125 feet to 100 feet this year.

However, there will be a 5 percent increase in service connections fees all over the county (higher in Ellendale and Blades).

Locally, operations and maintenance (O&M) service fees are slated to increase by roughly 4 percent in Bethany and South Bethany, more than 3 percent in the Fenwick Island district, nearly 3 percent in Dagsboro-Frankford, and a point or two elsewhere around the region.

Improvements at the South Coastal Regional Wastewater Facility (SCRWF) will move into phase three, and the budget committee is recommending a nearly $1.27 million grant to help with that. The county has budgeted $728,000 for new vehicles there as well.

Work is slated to begin on the Sea Country Estates and Bay View Estates sewer districts, and the budget committee has recommended a $300,000 grant to help with that (the county already gave $100,000, in fiscal 2005).

In addition, work will begin on the Miller Creek district, which will eliminate 483 on-site systems, and the South Ocean View district, which will eliminate another 296.

The county expected continued collaboration with developers on the Millville Expansion (of the Bethany Beach district) upgrades. Ellis Point developers will pick up more than 20 percent of the costs on an expansion to serve a neighboring subdivision.

Finally, revenues.

The county anticipated realty transfer taxes would contribute the lion’s share — $25.7 million, or 37.2 percent of total revenues.

As Stickels pointed out, the state had also done quite well in that regard, collecting nearly $50 million in transfer taxes from Sussex County in fiscal 2005. However, he said the county didn’t have the power to collect those taxes in municipalities — the $25.7 million came in from the unincorporated county.

Fees and services bring in roughly $12 million, the aforementioned appropriated surplus made up for $11.4 million, county property taxes nearly $8.2 million and state/federal grants most of the remainder.

The county carries $120.3 million in general obligation debt, which is supported by income from utilities. If the need arose, financing capabilities exist for another $157 million in bond sales, or borrowing against assessed properties up to $278 million, according to the budget committee report.

Typically, council debates expenditures and tacks on a few last minute grant requests after budget introduction, and the public will have a chance to watch that work in progress in the coming weeks.

Residents will have a chance to comment at the public hearing, set for Tuesday, June 14, 6:30 p.m.