South Bethany takes a look at expenses

South Bethany officials focused on expenses and their public works and police departments in their most recent budget meeting, on Thursday, Feb. 22, with mostly minor shifts anticipated for the expense amounts budgeted in recent years.

Council members were generally in agreement with the new amounts, save Councilman John Fields’ insistence that Ocean Drive needs to be swept more often than once each year. The time for that to be done has nearly arrived, with the street sweeper generally contracted for a late March or early April run on the oceanfront road.

But Fields said he felt the amount of stones and sand on the road was already beyond an acceptable level, and that sweeping should be done perhaps four times each year. That work goes a level beyond the scraping of the road done by town employees periodically throughout the year, which has been ongoing throughout the fall and winter as storms and more routine weather have pushed sand and gravel over the minimal dunes and onto the road.

“Ocean Drive is in bad shape,” Maintenance Supervisor Don Chrobot agreed, referring to hopes that the town might soon upgrade its surface from the current tar-and-chip material to blacktop. Such an upgrade would likely only be done after a beach reconstruction was completed — a target date that is still awaiting word on funding.

The tar-and-chip surface requires regular — but less expensive — repairs. Blacktop, on the other hand, is more permanent but would require more expensive repair work if damaged. Thus the town has waited on blacktopping for storm-vulnerable Ocean Drive, while most of its other streets have gotten the more permanent treatment.

Other council members also acknowledged that the street was in need of some TLC, but they did not favor increasing the existing sweeping program.

“Storms come in at the end of winter,” Councilwoman Marge Gassinger pointed out in reference waiting for a late March sweeping, while Mayor Gary Jayne emphasized that the work done by the Public Works department over the winter was enough to keep the road open and suitable for the bulk of its winter traffic: joggers, those with strollers and bicyclists.

Council Members Bonnie Lambertson and Richard Ronan said they both felt the road was in better condition than in years past, though Gassinger noted some holes.

Town Manager Mel Cusick was focused on the eventual plan to blacktop the road. “The new dune line will protect the road and keep debris off it,” he said, estimating the eventual cost of the blacktopping at some $80,000 to $100,000, likely under the 2009 fiscal year, after the expected beach reconstruction would be finished.

Fields, however, said he felt the impact of storms on the accumulation of debris on the road was minimal, with most of the gravel coming not from the beachfront but from driveways adjacent to the roads, and from vehicular travel rather than storms. “I would like to see it swept more often,” he said, in a refrain he repeated, with humor, throughout the meeting.

Despite that repeated call, council members elected to keep the town’s budgeted amount for street maintenance at the same $3,000 as last year. That amount is designed to supplement Municipal Street Aid funds, which have dropped off as more towns in Delaware have incorporated and as others have annexed new areas.

MSA funds are a set amount statewide and are doled out based on the miles of streets and year-round population in each town, resulting in ever-decreasing amounts for towns — such as South Bethany — that are not growing.

With 1,848 year-round residents on record and no annexations, the town received $54,000 in 2006. Finance Administrator Renee McDorman said she anticipated just $50,000 for the 2008 fiscal year. The town spent $67,000 in 2006, on street repair and the York Road walkway, leaving just $74,000 in its reserve from MSA funds in previous years.

Beach costs to be high regardless of replenishment

Also under the Public Works budget, council members looked at some $25,000 in anticipated expenses for maintenance of the town’s dunes and beach walkways in the coming fiscal year.

The town has already spent the $20,000 it budgeted through the end of April, thanks in large part to the Thanksgiving storm that did severe damage to the minimal duneline. “We have already used that and we haven’t done a lot,” Chrobot told council members. “We will have to go over this year,” Cusick added.

Jayne noted that Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) workers had been working to push some sand toward the withering dunes since that November storm, but that the department has refused the town’s request to allow it to do the same to continue rebuilding the dunes. Instead, the town is required to bring sand from inland for such work, elevating the costs of dune repair.

Even assuming a replenishment project begins before additional work is required and additional expense incurred by the town, Jayne said he expected the town would need the monies allotted for minimal repairs to instead repair its wooden walkways behind the reconstructed beach, plus other related expenses. He referenced damage from the fall storms to dune fencing that has also since been trampled by beachgoers.

Cusick again noted that with replenishment would come protection for those walkways, making a future fix — after replenishment — likely a much more lasting job.

Council members also gave the thumbs-up to bumping up signage expenses. Chrobot had requested just $3,000 — less than the $5,000 in last year’s budget — but while signage projects on both the east and west sides of the town have been completed, council members were mindful of the need for new signs at the new town hall and police station, as well as on a reconstructed beach. They retained the previous $5,000 figure.

Cusick did note, however, that inquiries had been received from the South Bethany Property Owners association about possibly paying for such signs. Whether that would be the case, or how much such a contribution would be, was unknown.

Also on the upswing for the coming year, grounds and building maintenance, up to $15,000 from $12,000, owing to the increase in size of the two new town buildings. Similarly, $18,000 was allotted for utility expenses, up from $16,000.

Trash and gasoline costs are also expected to rise, the latter up to $6,000 from $4,000, and the former from $190,000 to $197,000, on a built-in increase in the final year of the town’s trash-hauling contract. Some $3,000 was also allotted for purchase of a new, larger trailer that will allow Public Works to sell off a smaller trailer and dedicate its existing large trailer to hauling water for irrigation in the summer.

Beautification efforts praised by council

Chrobot asked for just $25,000, down from $27,000, for landscaping and maintenance, with much of the town’s work on a three-year landscaping and beautification plan already in the ground and anticipated cost reduction for grass cutting and trimming.

With all eyes on the bottom line, the council got some welcome news at the start of their Feb. 22 meeting, in the bidding on their contract for those services. B&B Services bid just $10,800 for the three-year contract for service to the town — the lowest among a whopping 12 bidders. That’s roughly half the price the currently contractor has been charging.

Cusick said he was confident in the abilities of the new contractor, despite the much lower price. He said they had all new equipment and that their references had all been good. And, if the town is not satisfied, either party can cancel the contract with 30 days’ notice.

The council unanimously approved the contract, with Jay Headman absent for the vote. The contract does not include the services the town uses when contracting for the cutting of yards with non-compliant tall grass, but Cusick said that the same contractor could be used, if the council chose.

Ronan rejoiced in the possible lesser costs for landscape maintenance, saying that would mean more money available for beautification efforts, rather than routine maintenance of the grassy medians on Route 1, for example. He noted that the SBPOA had also offered to help with beautification costs.

Headman, arriving late for the meeting, was full of praise for Chrobot and his public works crew in their beautification endeavors, saying they had been doing “an outstanding job.” “If there’s anywhere we should spend more money, that’s it,” he added, complimenting the effort’s bang for the town’s buck.

Some of Chrobot’s attention will also continue to be spend on maintenance and inspection of the canal-end areas owned by the town, which he said have been attended to at a rate of about three to five each year.

Chrobot’s attention to the town’s drainage problems has already yielded a notable result: expenses down from $35,000 last year to just $25,000 requested for the 2008 fiscal year. “We’re getting less and less areas,” he told the council members. “And we’ve taken care of a lot of the severe drainage issues.” Chrobot said there were still some concerns over old drains that were still in place and connected to new drainage systems, but that complaints were sharply down.

Police grants efforts successful once again

Police Chief Joe Deloach presented his usual bare-bones budget on Feb. 22, noting cost overruns already in the 2007 fiscal year on office supplies, vehicle maintenance and equipment repair, with older equipment and vehicles in the process of being replaced by newer ones.

Deloach also requested $7,000, up from $5,000, for training of personnel. He said he had found training of officers was the best way to reduce lawsuits against the town, in addition to providing a better-trained police force.

The police department’s numbers for gasoline nudged up slightly, from $15,000 to $15,500, while printing costs were expected to jump from just $2,000 to $5,000. Deloach said the department was already over that lesser figure for the year and had run into problems with existing tickets when they were reviewed in court. He said he planned to have the new tickets approved by the court system before having them printed.

The department is again expecting a significant amount of grant funds, from $2,500 to partially cover a new computer system at the new police station that will work with security cameras and keyless entry systems to a $1,250 grant that helps offset the costs of the police departments wireless communication.

There is an estimated $10,000 in Homeland Security grants expected, while more than $7,000 in grants will go toward enhanced drug enforcement, overtime, Fourth of July fireworks enforcement and a new shotgun.

Council members praised both Deloach and Cusick for their seeking and obtaining grants for the town in recent years. Deloach said he had obtained some $341,000 in grants from 1987 through August of 2006. He has worked for the town since 1979. Grants that Cusick applied for paid for the bulk of the York Road walkway, as well.

Big town hall celebration planned

Under its general and administrative budgets, most expense levels remained the same. Printing costs were expected to be down slightly, from $6,800 to $6,000 based on reducing printing of the Zephyr newsletter to twice per year.

Health insurance costs were anticipated to rise, as they have for most municipalities and businesses, from $115,000 to $130,000, while other insurance costs were expected to rise from $70,000 to $90,000, based on increases in workmen’s compensation costs and the unknown of the new town buildings.

Training costs were also requested for an upswing, as Cusick noted the needs for Chrobot and Code Enforcement Constable Joe Vogel to have additional training, as well as training for town staff in Homeland Security areas and for National Incident Management System (NIMS) certification.

Council members also supported increasing allotments from $1,000 to $2,500 for possible town functions, which have until now primarily been the hosting of intergovernmental meetings. With the new police station and town hall set to open in the coming fiscal year, council members supported the notion of “doing something nice,” as Councilman John Rubinsohn put it, in terms of an open house or other event.

McDorman said she also expected somewhat good news in terms of utility bills, with the larger building size for the new town buildings somewhat offset by more efficient operation and the town’s membership in the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce’s electricity cooperative. She upped that figure just $500, to $7,000.

Also on McDorman’s list: some $25,000 for computer system improvements and software, with new accounting and payroll software among the improvements.

In consideration of the town’s reserve funds, McDorman told council members it was up to them to decide during their budget process how much to leave in reserves. Some $900,000 is due to be paid for the construction of the new town buildings, $300,000 for a planned canal dredge and $150,000 for the collection of transfer taxes.

Rubinsohn, who has been encouraging the investigation of better yields on the town’s invested funds, said he hoped they would garner some $100,000 in interest that could be split evenly between reserves and revenues.

Also outstanding in the coming budget year: $22,500 for the town’s portion of the contract with beach lobbyists Marlowe & Co.; $20,000 for a new parking lot at the town hall; $10,000 for masonry work to replace existing brick, with the possibility of a personalized-brick project to help offset those costs.

The bottom line, as noted by Rubinsohn: some $1.3 million from the town’s reserves for capital projects. It’s a big tab, but council members were positive about the numbers.

“I’m thankful for it, because the state keeps pointing to our large reserves,” said Ronan, referencing pressure from the state level for municipalities to spend on needed capital projects instead of building up large reserves with no plans to spend them on improvements for taxpayers.

“These are needed projects,” Rubinsohn added. “That is why we have reserves.”

Having already looked at the revenue side of the budget at previous meetings, the council members will now be melding the expense portion of the budget with those figures before finalizing the draft budget for the 2008 fiscal year. The budget needs to be adopted at their April council meeting.

The next budget meeting is set for Wednesday, March 14, at 5 p.m.