Budget in front of council on Tuesday

The public will have its first, and likely last, chance to comment on Sussex County’s $142 million budgetary plan for the 2008 fiscal year at 10 a.m. on Tuesday in county council chambers in Georgetown. Council will consider adopting the budget after Tuesday’s public hearing.

While there are only modest increases in fees and no tax increase proposed with the 2008 plan, county coffers have been plagued by a sluggish real estate market, resulting in decreased revenues last year and likely next.

County officials are expecting another 20 percent drop in transfer tax revenues in 2008, the same drop that is expected at the end of the 2007 fiscal year. Local governments equally share the 3 percent tax that is collected after the sale or resale of property with the state.

Despite the slump, county officials are expecting a more-than-modest $22 million from the tax in 2008, roughly $13 million more than it collected in 2000, and plan to use $18 million to cover rising operational costs — including a 10 percent increase in the public safety budget and the county’s group hospital health care plan.

In the face of some debate about relying so heavily on the tax, though, County Administrator Dave Baker and Finance Director Susan Webb said they will watch the line closely but emphasized that they are not worried.

“By us keeping an eye on it and following our budget and being very careful, right now it’s manageable,” Webb said this week. “I’m cautious, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s got our heads up.”

With housing-related revenues down roughly $18 million from 2005 in the proposed budget, Sussex County budgetary officials have covered the loss by cutting capital expenditures next year, from roughly $19 million to $10.4 million.

Unlike New Castle County and some municipalities, though, they have not proposed increasing taxes, instead opting to keep the tax rate steady for the 18th consecutive year. Local governments statewide also seem to have dodged a financially crippling bullet from the state in the form of legislation to eliminate some transfer tax revenues through a bill that would not have allowed local governments to collect the tax in certain rural areas. A substitute bill introduced recently was not expected to have as large an impact, if enacted.

In the plan that will be presented Tuesday, 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.