County approves its 2007 budget

About a dozen representatives from local non-profit groups paraded in front of County Council and its crowded chambers on Tuesday to ask for their share of miscellaneous county funds in a nearly three-hour-long 2007-fiscal-year budget hearing. Council unanimously approved the $140 million plan and the accompanying sewage rates but tabled the decision to hand out grants until the General Assembly ends its session on June 30.

For the 16th straight year, the county budget didn’t raise property taxes — 44.5 cents per $100 of assessed value — which only account for the fourth-largest revenue source in the county’s budgetary plan, said retiring County Administrator Bob Stickels.

“Our budget is not set up on property taxes,” Stickels said. “We have set our budget up for 19 years on user fees.”

Stickels and county staff used those user fees again this year to counter rising prices. In the face of electric hikes, unprecedented gas prices and maintenance projects, county residents will pay more for sewage fees in the 2007 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Although the county should feel a lessened energy hike impact because of its association with a state-led cooperative effort, Stickels budgeted for across-the-board increases of 94 percent.

Three wastewater facilities across the county experienced energy rate increases of 117 percent when Delmarva Power’s rate caps were lifted on May 1. County officials also budgeted more than $500,000 for gas costs next year, an increase from last year of 78 percent.

Stickels and the county budgeted for several local wastewater facility maintenance projects and studies, as well, including a $317,000 expense at the Bethany facility. Minimal sewage rate increases are the result of facility projects, studies and the county’s energy problem, which Stickels thinks is a long-term problem.

Residents in the South Bethany sewer district will pay the most in additional costs next year, experiencing a 7.57 percent increase. The county will hold a separate public hearing on Tuesday for another ordinance to establish the sewage increases.

South Bethany district residents’ annual bills will increase to $264.75. Bethany sewage district residents will experience a 7.49 percent increase to an annual bill of $267.66. Fenwick’s residents’ bills would rise 6.2 percent to $319.40 per year.

North Bethany resident Willie Coffey, whose sewage rates will rise more than 7 percent starting July 1, complained before council Tuesday. Coffey argued that the $11.99 per foot total assessment — which charges residents according to frontal footage up to 100 feet — in the North Bethany Expansion was “unfair” when compared to other districts. The neighboring Bethany Beach district pays only $.69 per foot. The assessment roll was also unanimously approved on Tuesday by council.

“Sussex County prides itself in being user-fee based,” he said. “(But) they have a responsibility that their fees and charges are distributed equitably. It just seems a little unfair.”

Budget notes

The 2007 budget passed on Tuesday includes $1.4 million for more State Police troopers in Sussex County and $400,000 for an expansion of the South Coastal Library. Phase I of the construction of the new Administrative Annex building, which will sit behind the current administrative building on The Circle in Georgetown, will cost the county $7.5 million in the coming year. The budget also includes a cost-of-living adjustment of 3.5 percent and a raise of $500 for county staff in the next fiscal year, which will start on the first of July