Sussex County announces budgetary plan

Increasing sewage fees, a group of retiring department heads and skyrocketing energy prices were the primary focus of the Bob Stickels-led Sussex County budget presentation on Tuesday.

Retiring County Administrator Stickels and other county officials on Tuesday morning presented the county’s proposed $140 million budgetary plan for the 2007 fiscal year to council.

The budget presented — which only increased by 2.16 percent from last year and didn’t raise property taxes despite rising prices — will be the subject of a public hearing before Sussex County council’s 10 a.m. meeting on June 20 in Georgetown.

“Of the 19 budgets that I have been involved with, this has been the most complex to deal with,” said Stickels of the last budget on which he will work as a part of the county staff. “This is an extremely difficult budget to put together,” Stickels added, mentioning that list of issues. “I believe the increased costs for energy are not going to be short-term, as we saw in the ’70s and ’80s. They are going to have a lasting impact.”

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

At the South Coastal Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility, for instance, county officials budgeted $537,847 for electric costs, a 117 percent increase from the $247,856 budgeted last year.

That 117 percent increase — the highest of the Delmarva Power rate increases — is also reflected at the Wolfe Neck Wastewater Treatment Facility and the county’s administrative offices in Georgetown.

Stickels said Tuesday, however, that he expects those electric costs to increase by 67 percent, 59 percent and 49 percent, respectively. County officials in attendance Tuesday morning could not explain why those increases would differ but said that an accountant was attempting to determine the cause.

Rising electric costs aren’t the only fuel-related problem facing the county. As gas and diesel prices sit near $3 a gallon, officials this year budgeted $504,283 for fuel costs, a 78 percent increase from last year and “they don’t even wash our windshields,” Stickels noted.

Sewage fees increasing

Because of sewage facility maintenance projects, expansions and studies caused by growth — along with rising fuel and electricity prices — county residents will likely pay more this year toward water and wastewater services

When Stickels took over as county administrator in 1988, Sussex served 13,128 equivalent dwelling units (EDUs) with its wastewater program. Now, 18 years later, the county serves 54,311 EDUs, a 314 percent increase in 18 years. That growth and aging equipment has caused the need for expansion and improvement, according to county officials.

The officials included a $317,000 Bethany Beach district maintenance project in the 2007 fiscal-year plan. A Dagsboro-Frankford Area Wastewater Facilities Plan and Environmental Assessment will cost $352,300.42.

Extra costs have caused increases from 1 to 9 percent in most of the county’s 15 sewer districts in this year’s budget. If that plan is passed as is, South Bethany and Bethany residents would see an about 7.5 percent increase in their annual sewage bill. Fenwick residents would see a 6.2 percent increase. Connection fees would also increase.

Ocean View Expansion district and South Bethany sewer connection fees will rise by 18 percent to $4,002. The connection fees along the North Millville expansion would rise 15 percent and Fenwick sewer connection fees would rise 17 percent to $4,273.

“We would like those (increases) to be more,” Stickels said. “But we can’t justify why it would be more.”

Senior staff retiring

Seven department heads with a combined 228 years of experience and service to the county are already eligible for retirement. Four other county employees are, as well, including the assistant director of personnel, with 32 years of experience, and an administrative secretary with 31 years of dedication to the county. Nine other county employees — including four other department heads — are eligible for retirement before the summer of 2009. Fifteen of the 20 on the list are eligible later this year or next, including Stickels, who is retiring in November.

“This is something the next manager needs to be aware of,” Stickels said of the retirement situation. “This is something council needs to be aware of.”

“That’s a lot of knowledge and expertise,” Accounting Division Director Susan Webb said Tuesday. It’s important that this transition goes smoothly. We’re urging council to come up with a plan.”

In his budget letter, Stickels recommends that council appoint a “personnel search committee” to devise a plan to replace the senior staffers with qualified candidates from inside or outside the county’s current staff.

“The replacement of management positions cannot be done, in most cases, in 30 days,” Stickels wrote in the letter that urges council to act immediately.