Sussex County Council reviews audit report

Sussex County Council reviewed audited numbers for the 2005 Fiscal Year, and County Administrator Robert Stickels took the opportunity to project a sober economic outlook, at the Feb. 28 council meeting.

Finance Director David Baker and staff, and personnel from accounting firm Jefferson, Urian, Doane & Sterner, noted stellar revenue growth, and $11.8 million worth of revenues in excess of expenditures under the General Fund. But Stickels warned against looking at that $11.8 million as a “surplus.”

In fact, he included a definition of surplus in the financial highlights report, which notes “an amount or quantity in excess of what is needed…”

“When you look at today’s economy, there’s a wind chill out there,” Stickels said. “With the (electricity) rate increases — we’re a million-dollar purchaser of power.”

Much of that power went to run the county’s four wastewater treatment plants, he pointed out, so operational costs were sure to spike. It would be good, Stickels said, if the county could soften that impact and avoid hitting the residents with “double barrel” rate increases.

The county was also planning a new engineering building, he added, and that project alone was expected to top $7 million.

There’s also a Nanticoke River dredging project on the near horizon (Army Corps of Engineers pays for the actual dredging, but the county expects to spend $2 million for a spoils site) and an estimated $4 million in landfill closure costs (more of a long-term expense, but one mustn’t forget about it). And the county is working to make up its post-retirement benefit fund contributions ($19 million short).

“I dare anybody to tell me the $11.8 million isn’t needed,” Stickels said. “It’s like looking at a checkbook and saying, ‘Oh, I have $1,100 in there — I don’t need that.’ Well, you’ve got bills coming.”

Council Member Dale Dukes commended staff for a job well done. “Financially, we’re in good shape,” he said. “But there’s a lot on our plate that we have to provide for.”

• In other highlights, bankroll for governmental activities came primarily from real estate transfer taxes (51 percent), at $36.3 million — far in excess of expectations.

• The county issued 3,288 building permits in the 2005 Fiscal Year: more than double the number issued in the 1995 Fiscal Year, 29 percent more than issued in the 2003 Fiscal Year (2,558) and more than 18 percent more than issued in the 2004 Fiscal Year (2,797).

• The value of new construction in Sussex County exceeded the total for the rest of the state, in the 2005 calendar year.

• Agriculture remained strong as well — Sussex is still number one in the nation, for poultry and egg sales. The county ranked high for total ag products sold and vegetable acres harvested, as well (top 50 counties).

• The report noted $459.3 million in total assets — most of that in capital assets ($283.1 million, including land, improvements and construction in progress) and restricted assets and investments ($105.2 million)

• Total liabilities added to $186.7 million, some of that due within the year, but the vast majority ($148.5 million) due in more than one year.

• Assets minus liabilities, that left the county with roughly $272.7 million to the black, up more than 20 percent over the year.

While prospects for a tax rebate this year seem somewhat bleak, local law enforcement agencies continued to enjoy the county’s 2006 Fiscal Year largesse on Feb 28. Locally, Stickels announced grants to Fenwick Island (for a used, $6,900 Dodge Intrepid) and Ocean View ($7,700 for mobile radios) police departments.

In other business, council approved a dual change of zone, from Agricultural-Residential (AR-1) to Commercial (C-1) on 6.5 acres and from AR-1 to High-Density Residential on PGS Properties petitioned for the changes at adjacent parcels on Old Mill Bridge Road, just north of Route 54 (west of Fenwick). Plans include four commercial pads and 100 townhouses.

The county Planning and Zoning (P&Z) Commission held public hearings on the applications in July 2005, and made their recommendations to council in January 2006. The commission recommended approval.

Council Member George Cole lodged his objection, though, questioning the engineering department’s ability to keep up with the increased density and the Delaware Department of Transportation’s (DelDOT’s) ability to keep up with traffic loads on Route 54.

But the record from the P&Z showed that DelDOT hadn’t required a Traffic Impact Study, once the developers agreed to the department’s request that they develop residentially, rather than commercially.

However, as P&Z Director Lawrence Lank pointed out, there’d been no opposition at the public hearings. Council Member Vance Phillips followed up.

“If things are so bad down there, I would think someone would have come here to oppose (the project),” he said. “It seems things are not as dire as some would lead us to believe.” Council approved the changes of zone 4-1, 4-1, over Cole’s opposing votes.