County adopts $142 million plan

Sussex County Council unanimously approved their $142 million 2008-fiscal-year budget Tuesday, with one amendment to help aging county senior centers.

The Indian River, Nanticoke, Greenwood and Lewes senior centers will receive $25,000 each, to help pay for capital expenses in the coming year. County officials increased funding by $96,000 to cover those grants and to increase funding for CHEER, a Sussex County senior services organization that has experienced funding woes in the past couple years, with state officials leveling allocations.

The 2008 budget, which includes a $23 million public safety tag — a 10 percent increase over last year — only increased a meager 1.4 percent over last year’s plan, with officials cutting capital contributions to make up for decreasing revenues.

Housing-related revenues have fallen from more than $50 million in the 2005 and 2006 fiscal years to just more than $31 million expected in 2008. Plummeting revenues from the transfer tax — a 3 percent tax placed on the selling price of property that is shared by local and state governments — have garnered the most attention.

After collecting a record $36 million from the tax in 2005 and $35 million in 2006, officials expect to bring in just more than $27 million in the 2007 fiscal year and have budgeted only $22.4 million in the 2008, in another sign of a sagging real estate market. While falling housing-related revenues have prompted New Castle County and local municipalities to raise taxes, though, Sussex County’s property tax rate of 44.5 cents has remained static for the 18th consecutive year.

“I am pleased that we have been able to maintain current county services, given the decline in housing and construction-related revenues,” County Administrator Dave Baker said in a press release Tuesday. “I want to thank the County Council, department heads and the budget committee for their assistance and reasonable budget requests this year.”

County officials plan to spend nearly $1.4 million on open-space preservation next year, $5 million on libraries, $33 million on the county’s wastewater program and $23 million on public safety — a county department that has seen tremendous growth in the last decade. Sussex Count’s tally of emergency medical service calls rose from 9,600 in 1996 to 16,268 a decade later.

Sussex will only spend roughly $10 million on capital projects — including funds to build a new administrative building and to expand runways at the Sussex County airport — in 2008’s plan, after spending more than $19 million last year.

Money from the transfer tax will help balance the increase in the public safety budget and a 10 percent increase in health care costs. Grants and some projects could still be in jeopardy, though, if Dover legislators approve a bill that would limit transfer tax revenues by disallowing local governments from collecting the tax in certain rural areas.

Those jeopardized monies include grants to cover sewer costs and money used to cover portions of the salaries of 36 Delaware State Police officers assigned to cover Sussex through deals reached between the county and the state police.

State legislators had planned to discuss those bills in a Wednesday committee meeting in Dover. Substitute bills introduced later might not be as financially crippling for Sussex, but some county leaders are still worried.

“My thanks to Mr. Baker and the budget committee for their hard work, despite some lower revenues and some unanswered questions still lingering in Dover,” Dale Dukes, Sussex County Council President, said in Tuesday’s release. “I hope our legislators take notice of this hard work, and don’t decide at the 11th hour to alter the County’s portion of the realty transfer tax. To do so will no doubt undo a lot of effort, and necessitate budget reductions that would affect all Sussex Countians.”

Sussex County coffers — along with most budgets locally and statewide — have already taken hits recently due to the struggling real estate market, which flourished in the area for nearly six years.

The number of single-family homes, townhomes and condominiums sold dropped from 4,678 countywide in 2004, and 4,598 in 2005, to 3,556 last year, according to Sussex County Association of Realtors listing numbers. Sales continued to dip through May, those numbers showed. Some have blamed over-development for the downturn while others have cited a normally cyclical market.