Fenwick Island looks to trim budget

Fenwick Island Budget Committee members were looking to cut the fat from the draft 2007 fiscal-year budget when they met on Wednesday, May 24. Some $80,000 worth of tentative budget line items were placed on the table, but the committee members held their cutting hands, largely opting to just keep a scalpel handy during the coming year rather than make definitive cuts.

There was a lingering air of concern over faltering real estate transfer tax revenues, and committee members were hoping a wait-and-see attitude on a number of the items might allow them to make more informed decisions about the necessity of expenditures somewhere down the road.

Planned replacement of a $7,000 all-terrain vehicle used by the beach patrol was among those items, with no funds allotted for it in the draft budget, in favor of a possible special council meeting when the ailing vehicle reaches the inevitable end of its three- to four-year lifespan. (The summer of 2006 will be its third year in service.)

A nip here, a tuck there

On the other side of the scale, expenditures for a new system of Nextel cell phones. They were included in the budget but with the notation that the necessity for the number originally planned (13, for town hall, public works staff, the building official and police) should be scrutinized during the coming year for possible cuts next year.

A request for a $6,000 optical scanner for the police department saw considerable scrutiny from the committee members, who finally decided to look at the expenditure on a larger scale: Could the town purchase an even more expensive scanner that would also be suitable for helping to archive town records and thus make the purchase eligible for Homeland Security grants as a storm protection measure for valuable documents?

Committee members rejected a $30,000 estimate on costs to involve the University of Delaware as consultants in developing a comprehensive development plan for the town, even with a potential for $10,000 in grants if they were to do so.

UD staffers were already booked up for work in the near future, they noted, and perhaps the town could manage its own CDP process with a boilerplate document as their starting point. They allocated just $5,000 for potential expenses on that basis.

The group was split over the need for some $1,400 in budgeted funds targeted at Web site revamps. While Mayor Peter Frederick and Treasurer Audrey Serio favored the expense as a way to keep a professional face on the town, as well as inform citizens, Council Member Vicki Carmean was adamant that the time to do so was not the coming fiscal year, when finances were known to be tight.

Community projects nipped in the bud

Carmean likewise passed on funding a number of community projects, mostly from her own budgetary requests for the Beautification Committee. The addition and replacement of plants in the town’s medians and decorative planter pots were something she was willing to put off this year, she said. Or, perhaps someone could be found to donate some materials.

But Frederick argued that it was just such projects that were seen as important by the townsfolk — projects they could see and enjoy on a regular basis, and that got them involved with the town in both the committee work and carrying out of projects.

Committee members did decide to keep the downscaled town banner project, with the set of hardware and single set of decorative banners the council had agreed May 19 to purchase with unspent funds in the current budget year. The rest of the banners, they decided, would perhaps best wait.

Relocation of garbage trucks eyed

In contrast, the committee members went back and forth on proposed expenditures to lease a property outside the town where the town’s garbage trucks, and other public works and beach supplies could be stored.

The $9,600 estimated lease cost and $7,000 estimate for erection of a security fence on the site were eventually bundled into garbage expenses. An added $10 per year for each of the town’s 700 properties netted enough to pay for the fence, while still keeping the town’s collection rate some $40 below their nearest competitor — at just $205 per year.

That is all tentative, of course, as the town irons out the lease details.

Less tentative was the need for a new roof on portions of town hall. Committee members were in complete agreement that the days of the carefully placed bucket were overdue to be gone.

And they were largely of one mind on the potential savings to the town in a $5,000 lease-purchase for an administrative vehicle.

In addition to being available to the building official, who currently uses her own vehicle and is compensated by the mile, the vehicle would be for use of the new town manager and other official uses. If a four-wheel-drive vehicle is purchased, it could also serve in emergencies. Fuel and maintenance costs were estimated at $6,000. The total was expected to be less than the compensation that is paid currently.

Salaries, benefits a significant expense

Perhaps the most controversial area of potential budget cuts came in the very general area of salaries and benefits. “It’s interesting that we talk about cutting a thousand here and a thousand there. Salaries are 76 percent of our budget. There’s not much room for give and take,” Serio said.

She and Haon were effusive in their belief that the town’s current level of staffing and services had finally achieved the point where citizens were well satisfied.

But Carmean wanted to be sure that all potential areas of saving were being examined during the budgeting process.

“We have to look long and hard at where we can cut expenses. This is not one of those years where we have extra money,” Carmean said. “I won’t vote for this budget unless we have done everything we can to cut back, cut back, cut back.”

Examination of the budget in regards to staffing was, however, deemed too sensitive a subject for an open meeting. The committee adjourned to executive session, with the results of that examination to be revealed in a more general way as the final draft budget takes shape in the coming weeks.