County considers upping marriage fees

Sussex County Clerk of the Peace George Parish made his case to county council members on Tuesday, April 7, as to why the council should approve fees charged by his office, as recommended by Parish and other county officials working on the county’s upcoming budget.

“Anytime we have an opportunity to consider taxpayers first, we should,” he said. “I believe it’s wrong for the taxpayers to continue to subsidize services that are used by very few people.”

County Administrator David Baker had supported the fee increases as a way to finally get the Clerk of the Peace office to be self-supporting when he discussed the proposal with council members in recent weeks.

Contrasting the quality of service Parish said his office provides with those in New Castle and Kent counties and the fees charged by each of the three Clerk of the Peace offices, Parish told council members, “You should take great pleasure and pride in endorsing these regulations.”

The changes proposed for the Clerk of the Peace office include both cuts to expenses and a change in the office’s overall fee structure, particularly impacting the amounts charged for those seeking a marriage license, certified copies of existing marriage licenses and wedding ceremonies performed by the Clerk of the Peace office by Parish and his deputies.

The Clerk of the Peace office currently brings in about $65,000 in revenue per year, based on the existing fee structure and 2008 service levels – less than the office costs to run. With the recommended changes to the fees, that amount would more than double, to about $132,000 if service levels were to remain the same in 2009 – an increase of more than $67,000 per year in revenue.

Among the fee increases would be a jump from $30 to $50 for Delaware residents to obtain a marriage license or to perform a wedding in the Clerk of the Peace’s office. Those fees double for non-Delaware residents, to $100 under the proposed fee increases.

While the changes would potentially end direct support of the Clerk of the Peace’s operations by the county’s overall budget, council members offered some concerns on Tuesday about the potential impacts of the fee increases on the customers who might seek it out.

“Would you get married with these prices if you were 20 years old?” Councilman George Cole asked Parish.

“I’m proud of the services we provide,” Parish said in response. “People come here from New Castle County to get married,” he noted, pointing also to what he said is a 6 percent increase in productivity levels in the office.

“We offer the best marriage ceremonies anywhere on the East Coast,” he said with pride, touting his office’s uniqueness in the 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week availability of marriage ceremonies. Parish said he did two or three off-hours weddings, such as midnight ceremonies, last year.

Cole, though, said he was concerned that the impact of increased fees would be felt by those seeking to get married. He questioned whether Parish could consider keeping existing rates for licenses and ceremonies and raise other fees charged by the office to support its operations.

“We’re available 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Parish reiterated to demonstrate the demands on his office. “One marriage on the beach requires me or a deputy to spend three to three-and-a-half hours,” he noted of the travel time involved.

He further noted that he already charges for the additional mileage he and his deputies rack up to drive to and from Sussex County’s beach areas to preside over beachside weddings.

Parish on Tuesday also voiced his ongoing objections to a $15 fee added by the State of Delaware to the fees charged by the county for a certified copy of a marriage license. Such license copies cost $25 total with the fee.

The $15 state portion goes to the state Committee on Domestic Violence, he noted, despite objections from Clerks of the Peace statewide in which Parish said he personally argued that the additional fee charged by the state would usurp county powers.

Parish said he had argued the state should assess the $15 fee in the divorce system, not on every marriage license. He said he and other Clerks of the Peace had protested legislators’ decision to assess the fee with marriage licenses and had been chastised for it.

Parish also asked on April 7 that the county council consider making one further change to the proposed ordinance that would change the fees charged by his office. He said he’d like to be able to include marriage ceremonies on Georgetown’s historic Circle among those he and his deputies can perform at the rate charged for an in-office ceremony.

Initially, Parish said he’d like to include any location “within walking distance” of the county administrative building in the basic ceremony fee, but council members said they were concerned in using that loose of a definition.

Instead, consensus favored including any property on the Circle, including the Circle center, courthouse and the recently restored Brick Hotel, which Parish said had already been the site of a number of weddings he’s performed.

The council agreed to formally introduce the related ordinance. A public hearing on the proposed fee changes could be held as soon as April 28.

Council seats, dog rules on the agenda

Deputy County Administrator Hal Godwin offered council members a legislative update on Tuesday, providing new information on a number of bills headed through the state House and Senate.

Godwin particularly noted movement on House Bill 65, which would add two at-large seats to the Sussex County Council. He said the bill was now out of committee and on the House “ready list,” but not on an active agenda.

He said Rep. Joe Booth, sponsor of HB 65, had expressed continuing support for the bill, despite the council’s current opposition to it – primarily due to the costs it would add to the county government’s operation, initially and annually.

“He assured me he will be working the bill actively on floor and emphasized that it has passed in the House in several sessions prior,” Godwin told the council. “I want to make sure all House members understand the financial implications, which I think are the basis of your objections.”

Godwin said he would continue to make contact with all House members over the issue.

Also mentioned on Tuesday was SB7, which has now passed in both houses of the legislature and has been sent on to the governor for his expected signature. SB 7 limits the ability of state, county and local governments to use eminent domain, preventing them from using it to take property for purposes of economic development. The county council has supported SB7.

Finally, Godwin made note of HB 95, which aims to regulate so-called “puppy mills.” Godwin said he had been in touch with Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) officials over the bill and had been told DNREC “vehemently” opposed the bill, including the potential for enforcement to be tasked to that agency.

Godwin said he believed the council should be concerned as well, since it is possible the county could also be tasked with some or all of the enforcement of the new regulations, in addition to its new responsibility for dog licensing.

“It would be an unfunded mandate,” he said. “DNREC doesn’t want the bill. … It would be another layer of requirements that would go along with that delegation.”

County Solicitor David Griffin said the council should also be aware of three other bills not yet introduced in the Delaware legislature but that were, along with HB 95, authored by the Humane Society of the U.S. and given to state legislators to sponsor.

Griffin said a hearing on the issues had been scheduled before the House Agriculture Committee on April 8 but that the issue had been pulled from the committee’s agenda due to anticipated opposition.

“This whole package of bills would create a fairly heavy layer of regulations,” Griffin emphasized.

Among those regulations, he said, are requirements for how dogs are kept in enclosures at locations with more than 10 dogs. Among them: a minimum outside space of 100 square feet per dog, or alternatively a requirement of a one-hour walk per day per dog; a requirement for a poured concrete floor in kennels; and annual veterinary inspection requirements.

Griffin noted that he is part of a group that follows sporting dogs and said he and his group were particularly concerned that the rules offered no exceptions for sporting or show dogs and would make it a crime to possess more than 25 dogs.

“Sometimes, we have 25 to 35 dogs at one time when we get together,” he said. “It would be a Class B misdemeanor to have that many dogs at one time.”

“I’m not saying every component of those bills is totally objectionable,” Griffin added, saying that the intention of the legislation might be good. But, “The responsibility would come back onto the county, and I feel it would be more appropriate for the counties to determine what ordinances are appropriate.

“I don’t know that we have a documented puppy-mill issue in this county,” he said. “Typically, what is reported is people who are dog hoarders. This bill is targeted at people who are producing puppies for the retail market.”

Deaver, noting the intentions of the bill, urged caution in the council’s decision on whether to support or oppose it. “We should be careful about our opposition to that bill,” she said.

Godwin said he felt the bill’s intent might be more applicable in an urban environment. “I don’t think it’s a problem in our area for someone to have a pet or a dozen dogs they’re breeding. It’s when they’re breeding dogs for fighting in an urban area that it becomes a very criminal activity.”

Also on April 7:

• Baker reported that county administrative offices would be closed on April 10, Good Friday, and that the council would have no meeting on April 14, meeting next at 3 p.m. on April 21.

• Baker also reported revenue of $45,000 from the sale of surplus county vehicles in a recent auction.

• The council introduced an ordinance setting the annual assessment rate for the Prince George’s Acres expansion of the Dagsboro-Frankford sewer district. Finance Director Susan Webb said the county typically sets sewer rates with its annual budget, but that when smaller expansion areas come on line during the year, that need to be billed separately.

The expansion would serve 28 homes and would be funded by a $95,000 USDA grant and a $500,000 USDA loan with interest of 5.2 percent per year. The debt-service fee would be $5.51 per front foot, billed on annual tax bills. Those connecting to the system would pay a $5,828 connection rate, as well as $252 service charge assessed annually. A public hearing on the ordinance could be set for April 28.

• The council unanimously approved an extension of sewer service to the Double Bridges development near Ocean Farms. As approved, the extension will serve only seven subdivided lots on a parcel of more than 40 acres overall, much of which is wetlands. The extension would connect to the existing sewer system in the area inside Ocean Farms.

• Over the objections of Cole, the council voted to move forward with extending sewer service to an established development outside Millsboro. Cole said the project, which was fast-tracked to be eligible for federal stimulus funding, was something Millsboro officials should be dealing with, rather than the county spending federal stimulus money to serve a single development.