Council passes fine, fee ordinances

Sussex County Council voted to approve a pair of ordinances Tuesday morning, raising a set of fees and fines in about a half of an hour. The five-man council disagreed on raising the fee for building code violation appeals hearings but voted unanimously to raise the fine for starting construction without appropriate permitting from the county.

Fines for building without a permit will rise from $100 to the cost of the building permit. If the building permit for the project in violation costs $900, for instance, the builder would have to pay a total of $1,800 if they applied for that permit after already starting construction on the property.

The county is not trying to raise money through the ordinance but rather to “make people comply” with building code, said Sussex County Assesment Division Director Eddy Parker, who attended and spoke at Tuesday morning’s meeting.

“We don’t see this as being a new cash stream,” officials said Tuesday. “We think this will correct behavior.”

The ordinance’s introduction and passage was spurred by some 50 violations in a Milford development just this year. County Administrator Bob Stickels said that this has “been an issue” in Milford for years.

“We’ve gotten the word out to all the towns except for one,” Parker said. “We don’t have a problem in 99 percent of towns.”

Unlike other town, Milford performs its own building inspections, which is why county officials didn’t immediately notice the violations. Sussex does, however, collect school taxes in Milford — and the rest of the county — and delaying the permitting process also delays putting that property on the county’s assessment rolls, practically giving the owner of the property a break on taxes and thus hurting Milford School District.

“Time is of the essence in getting these things on the rolls. I’ve met with Milford School District officials and they’re upset,” Parker said. “If they (builders) knew they had to pay double their permit fee, they’d come down here and pay.”

In other action Tuesday, council passed an ordinance increasing the fee for appealing a building code decision to the appeals board from $100 to $600, to cover costs in a department that saw an almost $900,000 surplus in the 2006 fiscal year, according to finance director Dave Baker.

The County did lose $1,200 on seven appeals in the 2006 fiscal year, however, paying each board member $100 per hearing and paying for advertising and legal assistance. (All of those appeals dealt with stairs and were ultimately granted variances.) Still, Councilman Vance Phillips said that fees should not be raised in a department operating with such a surplus.

“I believe a 600 percent increase is excessive,” Phillips said in his dissenting opinion. “This department is already making $900,000 more than it spends. We’re quick to raise these fees. But when we’re overcharging, I don’t see anyone rushing forward with an ordinance,” Phillips said, adding that he thought the county was gouging the consumer.

Other council members argued that the department achieved such a surplus because of an active real estate market, which has since cooled down. The county must cover their costs, County Council President Lynn Rogers said.