Stickels leaving after 18 years

A week from today, Sussex County Administrator Bob Stickels will pack the pictures that decorate his office walls, load paperwork into boxes and grab the two signed baseballs that have sat on the front of his desk in the county’s Georgetown administrative building for years.

On Friday, Oct. 27, Stickels — who has led the county through astounding growth for 18 years — will officially hand the head administration duties over to the county’s experienced finance director, Dave Baker.

“I’m going to miss the challenges. I don’t know if I’m going to miss the pace,” said Stickels, 60, adding that he sometimes works 65- to 70-hour work weeks. “It’s time to slow down a little bit.”

On Nov. 2, Stickels will start his new job at the Lewes-based George, Miles and Buhr, an engineering, architectural and consulting firm with offices in Lewes, Salisbury, Seaford, Dover, York, Pa., and Baltimore. With the firm, Stickels will serve as a financial, building expansion and general consultant for local governments. Laurel, Seaford, Lewes and Milton are among GMB’s clients.

Stickels said his new job should offer a fixed schedule the county administrator position never guaranteed.

“In the spring, it could be a nor’easter. In the winter, an ice storm,” said Stickels, a New Jersey native who worked as Georgetown’s town manager before assuming the county position. “You never know when the phone is going to ring.”

Baker, a 28-year county employee who was hired as its financial chief in 1992, will officially replace Stickels on the first of next month.

“Dave will do well. The county will do financially well,” said Stickels, the fourth and longest-serving county administrator, but, “The meetings might be shorter because there will be fewer stories.”

Baker will assume the position in a county that is radically different from when Stickels took over in 1988. The $12.8 million 1988 budget, which Stickels inherited from his predecessor, was less than some line items in the most recent fiscal plan. The 2007 fiscal-year plan, which included a capital budget — something not implemented until Stickels’ reign — balanced at $140 million. In Stickels’ first year, in ’88, the county only employed 180 employees. It now employs about 450.

In 1989, in a bold move in only his second year, Stickels suggested and council passed an 11 percent tax hike, the county’s most recent increase in taxes.

One year later, Stickels helped initiate the Sussex County paramedics unit and has proudly seen it flourish. In ’90, the county employed only 10 paramedics. It currently employs more than 100 in eight units.

But Stickels again frustrated some in 1991 when he introduced the county’s first transfer taxes, which were already being implemented at the state and local levels. The tax helped grow the paramedics unit, build libraries and enhance police protection. It continues to do so now as 36 percent of the county’s revenues, but implementing the tax then made the still-fresh head administrator quite unpopular, drawing protests from area real estate professionals.

“People were quite upset but financially it made sense,” Stickels said. “That’s what we’ve been able to use for paramedics, libraries, industrial park.”

That industrial park at the Sussex County Airport in 1988 only generated $12,000 to $14,000 in revenues for the county. Sussex officials now collect more than $300,000 annually from rental fees there, and the airport facilitates job opportunities. Combined, employers renting space at the airport pay a total of about $23 million in payroll, Stickels said.

And all the aforementioned growth of the county has paralleled a different kind of growth in the county. According to Stickels, he convinced county council to adopt its first comprehensive land-use plan in 1988, after years of infighting delayed its approval. Since then, the county’s assessment base has increased by an average 5 percent annually.

Since 1996, in another example of fantastic growth, the county has placed more than 20,000 equivalent dwelling units on its central sewer system.

Next year’s submittal of an updated comprehensive land-use plan will be a memorable one. It will be the first sign of growth in the county without Stickels’ handprint on it in nearly two decades.

In those 18 years of service, Stickels has been praised at times, almost asked to leave at others and branded unpopular more than once. But he has always thoughtfully guided the geographically largest Delaware county through arguably the most extensive growth era of its history.

“It has not always been a rosy picture here,” Stickels said. “We had to raise taxes. We’ve had to implement the realty transfer tax for the first time and people were not happy with that,” he added. “The advantage is that I’ve been able to do it over 19 budgets. It hasn’t happened overnight.”