Fenwick reports better-than-expected revenues

Fenwick Island residents received a little sunshine on a rainy Friday as Finance Administrator Gary Esposito announced a solid month for real estate transfer tax revenues, at the Oct. 27 town council meeting. According to Esposito, the previous month had been the town’s best since March 2005.

However, at least one resident in attendance took the opportunity to remind council members that the town had just raised property taxes to make up for anticipated transfer tax shortfalls.
“If real estate transfer taxes are up, what would the town do with the extra money?” asked resident Mike Quinn.

Mayor Audrey Serio answered with an anecdote from a meeting she’d attended in recent months. At that meeting, State Treasurer Jack Markell had cracked a joke about taking transfer tax revenues away from the towns, she said.

As Serio relayed, the joke didn’t get too many laughs. She told Quinn she wasn’t alone in feeling concerned that the state might still have designs on the local share of transfer tax revenues.

Local town and county administrators started advocating a weaning-away from reliance on transfer tax revenues more than a year ago, even before the housing market cooled.

It was the summer of 2005, and all the talk around Dover was about the revenue gap at the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT). In Sussex County, rumors started circulating that the state might start siphoning some portion of the local transfer tax revenues away to Dover.

The rumors have remained just that. However, concern persists regarding over-reliance on an inevitably fluctuating housing market.

All three of Fenwick’s new Council Members — Gardner Bunting, Diane Tingle and Bill Weistling Jr. — talked about the need for fiscal austerity on the campaign trail this summer.

• In other business, Bunting followed Esposito’s report with a recommendation that council shift a police pension account into the town’s General Fund. As Esposito explained, the move would streamline bookkeeping, and release those funds from an account currently earning about 1 percent interest, into an account earning nearly 5.5 percent. The money belonged to the town’s current police officers, Esposito said, but the earned interest would go into the general coffers.

• On a related topic, Serio later reported that the town was still shopping around for a town pension plan and had interviewed four major companies. “We’ll decide on the strongest, then compare that company to the state and make a decision about what’s best for our employees,” she said.

• Serio devoted a goodly segment to the upcoming Comprehensive Plan update. Some residents had questioned council’s no-bid contract award to Aspen, Colo.-based planning firm Bluegreen for work on that update, Serio said. However, as she pointed out, council was only required to go out for bid on items exceeding $50,000. The Bluegreen contract came in at $49,400, but with a built-in $10,000 grant, so actual costs to the town would be $39,400.

• Bunting answered questions about where the money for the Comp Plan update was going to come from by pointing to $20,000 set aside for the purpose by previous councils, and another $5,000 in the current year’s budget. Adding the Bluegreen-promised grant and another $10,000 from the state (Livable Delaware money) would leave the town with $4,400 outstanding, Bunting said. Serio said the town could work that amount into next year’s budget, or seek another Livable Delaware grant next year.

• While Bluegreen was the priciest of three planners under consideration (by a little more than $14,000), Serio stood by council’s choice. “In discussion, we realized — we needed not only a Comprehensive Plan for the state, we needed a plan for our town,” she said. “Bluegreen was the only vendor that made a proposal that would cover both aspects, together or separately.” She suggested parallel work on more specific design elements would ultimately prove more cost-effective.

• Serio appealed for attendance at the upcoming meeting to kick off the Comp Plan update — the workshop-without-agenda on Saturday, Nov. 18, at 9:30 a.m., at Town Hall. “Your input is very, very important in this,” she emphasized. Serio said the desire for that input was one of the reasons the town had set up a new message board on its Web site (www.fenwickisland.org, click Resident Info and scroll down past the weather forecast).