County approves increase to sheriff fees

The Sussex County Council unanimously on June 23 approved a slate of fee increases requested by county Sheriff Eric D. Swanson to help offset increasing costs incurred by the office for its work reclaiming property and selling foreclosed real estate.

The ordinance to amend Chapter 62, Article IV, increases obvious expenses, such as the cost of certified mail used in the office (up from $5 to $7.50, to cover increased postage costs), and more nebulous costs, such as increased expenses from having to send additional deputies to serve alias summons, on replevins and on sheriff’s sales.

Lt. Jimmy Walls told council members that the increased workload and volatility of performing such duties was preventing the Sheriff’s Office from breaking even.

With alias summons, Walls said, “We have to send more than one deputy out and that costs money. … If they’re not home, we have to get another summons and go back to post on the door that the property will be sold.” That means, Walls said, there’s addition costs for wear and tear on the deputies’ cars, as well as gas and several hours of deputies’ time invested.

Working replevins – the reclaiming of property for its legal owner – has also increased in cost due to safety concerns.

“We have had threats,” Walls noted. “Yesterday, big incident on [Route] 113. We have to send two and sometimes three deputies, though we do involve state police or the town police.” Walls said the June 22 incident involved shutting down Route 113 for a period of time as deputies attempted to confiscate some trucks without the cooperation of the people who had possession of them at the time.

Walls said the trucks were left in the middle of the highway, involving deputies for five to six hours.

“It was costing the county money to do this,” he said. “We need the increase just to cover ourselves.”

Increased fees for levies of property or goods and chattels, Walls said, account for the need to send more than one deputy.

“People have guns, dogs, knives,” he explained, noting several threats in the recent past and a protocol now calling for sending two and sometimes three deputies on such calls. The 4 percent fee is paid by the person requesting the reclaiming of their property.

With a full slate of sheriff’s sales as foreclosures continue throughout the county, Walls said the Sheriff’s Office is “booked up through November on work.”

Of the requested increases in fees, Walls said, “This is not going to make us any money, really, maybe a dollar here or there.”

The ordinance also allows the Sheriff’s Office to bill for additional costs when their service requires multiple trips to a location – an increasing problem, as Walls noted.

“We’ve never been allowed in the past to build for multiple trips,” he said. “This ordinance will take care of that.”

Outgoing County Attorney David Griffin explained that the county’s prior ordinance permitted only a $30 charge for a trip by deputies, charged one time only. “This allows us to charge a specific amount for each trip.”

Swanson had previously dropped his request for an increase in the cap on the 4 percent fee charged for sheriff’s sales, which is set at $10,000. Swanson had requested the cap be raised to $15,000, noting past sales of property valued at $8 million or more.

Also on June 23:

• The council unanimously approved the county applying for a federal energy grant under stimulus funding. The county is entitled to up to $688,000 in grant funds for energy purposes, with no matching county funds required.

The county can use up to $75,000 to cover its own administrative expenses and developing an energy strategy (required for the larger grant funding but not currently in place), while the rest of the grant would be targeted at reducing its total energy use, improving energy efficiency or installing onsite renewable energy systems at county facilities, or, for up to $250,000 of the grants, for sub-grants to organizations within the county.

• Council members also unanimously approved the county applying for a $58,000 housing preservation grant through USDA Rural Housing Services, which would go toward owner-occupied homes, all in rural areas, for housing deficiencies. The available grant amount was cut a few years ago from $250,000 to $100,000, and Sussex County officials agreed to work together with Kent County on their grant application and to split the resulting funding. The grant is hoped to address problems with 12 dwellings where 30 individuals live. Qualified home owners would include 83 percent with very low income.

• The council also approved, 4-1, expansion of its Inland Bays Regional Wastewater Facility, Phase I, with an estimated $12.8 million final cost and $1 million in engineering cost. Council President Vance Phillips voted against the expansion.