County offers employees voluntary furlough option

As part of their effort to cut an anticipated $7.7 million shortfall in the current year’s $54 million county general-fund budget, which runs through June 30, Sussex County Council members recently approved a voluntary furlough policy for county employees.

The program – estimated to save the county $22,000 in the current fiscal year – was refined this week, increasing the maximum number of furlough days for individual employees from three to five.

County Administrator David Baker explained Feb. 2 that the program was “designed with a primary goal to reduce salary costs and maintain services.”

Under the program, county employees could take voluntary unpaid leave of up to five days per year, as approved by their department head. Taking five days or less of furlough time would not affect the employee’s benefits and could be taken at a rate of as little as an hour at a time or could be added on to paid vacation time to extend a vacation, he said.

Baker noted that, as the plan is to reduce costs for the county, “We won’t pay other employees overtime to pay for work not done due to furlough time.”

While the council had previously approved the budget recommendations that included the furlough program, Councilwoman Joan Deaver said Tuesday that she could not support the idea.

“I did not realize, in the previous discussion, that this was going to be implemented that day,” she said. “I do not support any kind of voluntary furlough. I believe these people are paid too little. I only saw it 15 minutes beforehand, and I apologize that I voted for it.”

Other council members voiced continued support for the furlough program and said they felt it was win-win, benefitting both employees and the county’s coffers.

Council President Vance Phillips noted that once employees have used their allotted paid vacation time, they might want to take additional time off “without it reflecting badly on their record.”

“These are essentially five additional unpaid vacation days,” he added.

The increase to a maximum of five days of furlough time was instituted after Recorder of Deeds John Brady had come to the county with the initial idea and personally offered to take three days of furlough. Administrative officials increased that to five days maximum in the intervening weeks.

“We don’t want to provide benefits to employees who aren’t here,” Baker explained. “So we limited it to five days, so they can’t take a month off.”

Councilman George Cole pointed to the potential of losing work efficiency if too many people in the same department took furlough time at the same time, but Baker said department head approval would be required, so that it could be ensured that adequate staff was in place to meet the anticipated work load.

Baker said the original proposal had estimated that as many as 50 employees might take furlough for an average of three days each, generating both the three-day number and the estimated $20,000 savings.

Phillips took Brady up on a challenge he issued to council members at his prior presentation and said, “I will join the recorder of deeds and offer three days off as well.”

Councilman Michael Vincent also offered support for the voluntary program. “There’s nothing wrong with that, if the employee wants to take the time. I wouldn’t ask them to do something I wouldn’t do myself,” he said.

But Deaver still expressed objections. “I don’t support it,” she concluded.

Council members open suggestion box

Baker also announced on Tuesday the implementation of an online suggestion box on the county’s Web site. Developed by the county’s systems information department, the suggestion box, Baker explained, had originally been intended to offer citizens a way to provide suggestions as to how to reduce the county budget. He said it was recently expanded to be used for other comments, as well as budget-related comments.

Public Information Officer Chip Guy will be responsible for reviewing the suggestions and forwarding them to the proper departments, such as sending the budget-related items to Budget Director Kathy Roth.

Baker noted that the system allows comments to be submitted anonymously or with the submitter’s name and e-mail address to facilitate a reply.

“We’d encourage anyone to use it – employees or the public – to give us any ideas they may have, particularly regarding our services,” Baker said.

Deaver suggested the county even consider a contest for the best suggestion, to which Phillips replied that it could offer the opportunity to invite someone to the council to thank them in person.

Cole said he was concerned about how Guy would handle “frivolous suggestions.”

“There ought to be some kind of bar they have to meet to pass them on,” he said. Guy replied that if he had any question about whether or to whom to pass suggestions to, he would involve Baker or his deputy, Hal Godwin.

Deaver said she would like to see all of the suggestions, while Vincent said he would prefer they be run through Baker before coming to the council.

Phillips concluded the discussion by suggesting county staff proceed under their current vision and council members could consider possible revisions in the future. He also emphasized that council members already have online e-mail boxes on the Web site that citizens can use to contact individual council members.

Council reviews grant procedures

Council members reviewed their grant procedures, with three new members and a recent change in how grant monies are allocated. Webb noted that the county council’s grant funds are now lumped together, rather than being separated into individual councilmanic districts and community grant funds.

Asked about the procedure for making grants to organizations that serve more than one district, Webb mentioned groups such as the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts as possible groups to get donations from one or more council members’ funds in the past.

Deaver – noting she is a former Girl Scout – questioned Webb about those particular groups.

“Are they open to everyone?” she asked. Webb said she was unsure. (The Boy Scouts of America are not open to homosexual or atheist members or scout leaders.)

Acknowledging the potential objections to that group and others, Cole noted that, in the past, he had sometimes opted not to donate to particular groups and had allowed other council members to do so.

“It’s not just me,” Deaver replied. “It’s my constituents who are objecting.”

“You have a lot of constituents,” Cole said. “You were elected to show good judgment.”

Deaver said she would like written standards for the grants, and Baker said Webb could provide a written copy of the standards that are being used now.

Cole, in light of Deaver’s concerns, said he would also ask the county solicitor to provide some legal direction about giving grants to organizations that may discriminate.

“I’m getting questions,” Deaver reiterated.

“Is giving to churches OK?” Cole asked rhetorically. “Is giving to the Boy Scouts OK? None of that bothers me. My constituents can scream bloody murder, but those organizations serve a lot of people.”

Deaver said she also had questions about her personal leeway in making the grants, as to whether she could support groups she personally supported but who might not serve many of her constituents.

“If they reach out to you, you can choose to support them,” Webb replied. “That was the whole point of the councilmanic (grants).”

Cole said he also had concerns under the new system about whether anyone would be checking to see if the grant allocations were balanced, such as between sports groups, community reinvestment, student grants, etc.

Webb noted that the lumping together of the grant monies had been done, in part, because the grant uses and groups weren’t always mutually exclusive. Baker said the accounting and determination involved had been too complex.

“We need to be benefiting the most people each time with county tax dollars,” Cole said of the new system. “But there’s nothing to stop us from going overboard,” he said, pointing to the potential to make $15,000 in donations to softball leagues.

He said he also had concerns about grants that might end up with funds going outside the county or even the state. “They should have to have a supermajority vote,” he said. “Some we’ve sent out and I don’t know where they’ve gone.”

Also on Feb. 2:

• Baker announced that on Feb. 9 the county will open bids on its agricultural farm lease, for 568 tillable acres near Long Neck. The property is partially used for spray irrigation, which Deaver noted, asking, “How can you farm it when it’s filled with puddles?” Phillips replied that the previous five-year lease had expired Dec. 31 and was being renewed through the bids. “It’s difficult to farm,” he admitted. “But I’m sure that will be reflected in the lease.” Baker noted that the county had changed the spray area to improve the farmability of the parcel.

• Director of Finance Susan Webb presented the council with a wastewater agreement for The Meadows at Bayard, near Ocean View. She noted that the developer of the community was, per county policy, being asked to provide sewer facilities compatible with the county’s, so they can be connected later. The eventual sewer connection will take wastewater into the South Coastal sewer district.

Baker noted that the developer contribution would serve to reduce cost for property owners in The Meadows. They will only pay transmission costs based on their front footage. The developer will pay for the collection lines. The agreement received unanimous approval.