County officials watching bottom line closely

Sussex County officials presented an interim financial report on the county’s 2008 fiscal-year budget at the county council’s Dec. 4 meeting, noting concerns over drops in development-related revenues and expectations of a $2.7 million operating budget deficit at the end of the fiscal year.

Finance Director Susan Webb reported Tuesday that the county’s building permits are currently down 13 percent from the budgeted amount, with revenues from those permits down by 10 percent.

In addition to general county revenues and wider economic impacts, that also could hit area fire companies in the pocketbook, since the firefighters receive a percentage of revenue from building permits issued by the county. Webb said the firefighters’ payoff was down 8 percent thus far this fiscal year from budgeted amounts.

However, Webb said the county’s total revenue is on track relative to the budget, with some amounts being over budgeted numbers while others are under.

“We need to watch the realty transfer tax closely,” Webb advised, while acknowledging the expected operating budget deficit and emphasizing that most county departments are currently operating under their planned budget amounts.

The immediate impact of the shortfalls in development-related revenue for the county thus far in the fiscal year was apparently on Tuesday, with the council’s cautious response to a request for a funding commitment from the Delaware Agriculture Lands Preservation Foundation.

The DALPF had requested the county to provide funds that would be matched 1:1 with state funds up to $3 million, and likely with some federal monies as well. About $1.3 million in requested funding would go toward open-space preservation, including $300,000 for farmland preservation, if the county follows through with its budget.

Meanwhile, the Sussex County Land Trust’s board has requested $150,000 of $1.09 million in total funds to be designated for farmland preservation, above that $300,000 amount. Some $150,000 from private contributions would match a portion of that funding, bringing the total for the SCLT to about $600,000 from private, county, state and federal sources. Another $1.8 million is being requested to go toward the purchase of easements rather than outright purchase of property for preservation.

Webb advised council members that the request from the DALPF would not lock the county into a decision but rather was made to get an idea how much might be available from the county and the SCLT. She said they could provide the information on monies budgeted and make any agreement to actually provide those funds contingent on a review of the county’s budget in a few months.

Rather, Webb said, the DALPF request was a way to obtain a general commitment from the county. No detail has been provided about specific properties targeted for preservation through outright purchase or though purchase of easements, or about the availability of specific properties that might be suitable.

Council President Dale Dukes encouraged the council to a position of caution on the request, noting the economic forces that have kept the area’s housing market slow. “We need to tighten our belts ourselves,” he said.

Councilman Vance Phillips also told his fellow council members that he would encourage them to hold back funds for the purchase of land for preservation, as opposed to the purchase of preservation easements — particularly if it looked like the state might be looking to make a purchase of land for preservation in the near future. That way, he said, the county could use its funds to contribute to such a land purchase and thus make it available for public use, rather than using it on a preservation easement wherein the property would remain in private use.

The council agreed on Dec. 4 to report back to the DALPF with the council’s concern about finances, noting that the funds for the request were still in the county’s budget but that they would not commit at this time to releasing any particular amount.

Sewer expansion continuing

Among unbudgeted expenses so far in the 2008 fiscal year is an immediate need to provide sewer service in an expansion of the Angola Neck sewer district to the Woods on Herring Creek community. Webb presented on Dec. 4 a proposed ordinance that would add the costs of and revenues from that expansion to the 2008 fiscal year budget under the operating budget.

Webb reported that the sewer expansion had been passed by a referendum in that community on Aug. 18 and was considered an immediate need by the county and property owners owing to failing septic systems in the Woods on Herring Creek. The expansion costs will bring the community’s sewer up to county standards.

Also noted in Webb’s report to the council on Dec. 4 was an error in advertising of the public hearing on the issue, wherein old costs that were to have been struck had been incorrectly replaced with the new numbers and vice-versa. The result is a $135,000 difference from what was advertised, toward higher costs for the county.

Despite the error, there was no opposition to the expansion of the district as presented Dec. 4.

Phillis Kane, as resident of Woods on Herring Creek, encouraged the council to include the funding. “We’re looking forward to county sewer,” she said, also encouraging the county to move ahead quickly with a request for proposals to connect the expanded sewer to neighboring facilities, as drain seals had been a problem for quite a while and there was growing concern over the resulting effect on the environment and close neighbors.

Council members voted unanimously to accept the corrected numbers for the cost of the expansion and to add the final tally to the county’s operating budget for the year. They also voted unanimously to accept proposed assessment rolls, as well as assessment figures and EDU totals for the expanded district.

As adopted unanimously by the council on Dec. 4, those rates for Woods on Herring Creek are temporary, Webb emphasized, running at $898 per EDU and prorated at $439 for the six months between January and June of 2008 as part of the remaining portion of the fiscal year for ongoing operation and maintenance costs. Transmission rates are $2.21 per front foot, to pay for the capital costs needed to get the system operational and up to county standards. A one-time septic installation fee of $475 will be charged for septic tanks, where needed, with no connection fees charged at this time.

Council members on Tuesday also unanimously granted approval for Phase A of the Miller Creek sewer district to be designated as “substantially complete.” Construction on the new district began in February with areas on Double Bridges and Parker House roads having been completed while others are nearing completion. Work has also begun on Phase B of the district, with the entire project ahead of scheduled and within budget.

Council members also voted unanimously Dec. 4 to allow an amendment to a lease at the county’s industrial air park, to allow an existing tenant to sublease a portion of its space to a company that manufactures stainless steel items for the poultry industry.

The council also received on Tuesday the thanks of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) for a contribution to the VFW’s Uplink Program, which purchases phone cards for troops to keep in contact with loved-ones while deployed. The council in turn thanked the VFW for spearheading the effort.