Bethany committee smoothly approves $9M budget

Compared to the budget process for the 2006 fiscal year in Bethany Beach, this year’s budget process seems to be flowing with unexpected smoothness.

Town Council Secretary-Treasurer and Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Tony McClenny remarked Feb. 10 on the notable lack of changes proposed at the first meeting of the budgetary cycle, held Jan. 27. It was much the same at that day’s second meeting, with the major items discussed relating to the budget for the Bethany Beach Police Department, which had completed its budget requests since initial, incomplete figures were proposed in January.

McClenny cited the veteran makeup of much of the committee in the lack of discussion and changes, whereas many members serving in 2005 were new to the town’s budgetary process and had lots of questions.

Town Manager Cliff Graviet presented those police budget requests at the Feb. 10 meeting of the committee, citing as “drivers” for the budget the move to have 10 full-time officers — one more than currently in place, and what Graviet said was the number needed to keep the department running with full service. He said recent officer shortages had even forced Police Chief Michael Redmon to join his patrol officers on the street. The 10-officer department should be enough to allow for vacations and out-of-town court appearances by the officers, he said.

Graviet noted that salaries and benefits provided to those officers were on the high side compared to other departments in the area, in an attempt to retain officers’ loyalty in the small-town work environment.

Nonetheless, Graviet included $50,000 in the budget requests for potential legal costs associated with possible future unionization of the department, in the wake of the recent 4-4 tie vote and resulting narrow defeat of another unionization attempt by some of the BBPD officers.

He said that were unionization successful, the legal costs for negotiations would likely be more in the neighborhood of the $75,000 to $100,000 paid by nearby towns in recent years, as their police departments unionized. But the smaller amount in the budget was intended as a conservative way to provide for a mere possibility — if one he didn’t personally consider likely.

“It’s not likely, but it could still happen,” he told committee members. “I don’t expect to spend it,” he concluded.

Graviet said that Bethany Beach was one of the few towns in the area whose police force had not yet unionized, among those with large enough staffs to allow unionization. He said officers were difficult to retain and keep happy at times, due to the monotony and lack of dramatic work involved in patrolling a resort town of a single square mile, but that even starting salaries — now at $36,000 — were designed to help the town retain officers. Mayor Jack Walsh, present at the meeting, contrasted the figure with the $26,000 starting salary of police officers in New York City.

The town manager also noted that the town pays for health insurance for the officers and their families, with no employee contribution required. He said the spending on such items was intended to prevent even higher amounts that would be spent on negotiating with unionized officers.

The police department budget pushed the total draft budget figures for the town’s general fund operating expenses up to $4.793 million, up 11.4 percent from the 2006 fiscal-year numbers.

There were six other changes from the previous presentation of the draft budget, made on Jan. 27:

(1) An increase in anticipated parking revenue, based on increased fees recommended by the town’s Traffic and Parking Committee at their most recent meeting, as well as a revised tally on parking meter revenues from the past year;

(2) An increase in operating expenses due to anticipated increases in utility costs, with the expected 59 percent statewide increase in electric costs from Delmarva Power;

(3) An increased garbage disposal cost, up $3 per ton;

(4) Anticipated costs of $10,000, for 35 to 40 parking meters, adding some for previously unmetered handicapped parking spots and replacing older meters;

(5) An estimated $45,000 to pay for the new bandstand sound system, the cost of which was not included in previous cost estimates and budgeting; and

(6) An estimated $60,000 cost for new town maps, to bring a collection existing maps and GIS data up to current standards and incorporate them in a single set of comprehensive, highly accurate maps that will serve to allow town officials to use them for official measurements and other purposes.

Asked about the bandstand sound-system costs, and on the heels of $90,000 in unanticipated costs for pile driving for the structure’s foundation, Graviet said he didn’t expect much additional cost for the project beyond those two elements but allowed that costs for a flag pole had not yet been estimated.

The mapping issue remains up in the air, with plans to revise the official town map reviewed by the town’s Planning Commission and questions as to what level of accuracy and detail is necessary for that map alone, versus the convenience of daily use by building and planning officials who might want to measure, say, street width with the new maps. The former would likely be a less costly process but could also be rolled into the more extensive and expensive cost of a larger mapping project.

Bethany Beach Financial Director Janet Connery also provided a table of figures analyzing the potential cost savings for early payment on the former Neff property. The committee recommended keeping to the existing schedule of payments during the 2006 fiscal-year budget talks, at least partially in deference to the Neff family’s request to do so for their tax benefit.

Graviet said at the January budget meeting that he felt last year’s consideration of the issue had been sufficient notice to the Neff family that the town would likely pay off the remaining amount early, with an early-payment penalty, versus paying it off over the full term at 7 percent interest. He had further advocated the move as it would free up some of the town’s borrowing power in the short term.

Connery’s analysis showed that, with interest earned on cash and paid on the loan and the early-payment penalties taken into account, the existing schedule would cost the town $82,156 over the loan’s principal, versus $64,000 to pay the loan in full this fiscal year. On the suggestion of Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead, she also determined there would be a final cost of $65,557 over principal if the town prepaid half of the loan on April 3 of 2006, and that’s the option the committee recommended. It would potentially save the town $16,559 in costs over the existing schedule of payments.

The final figures for Bethany Beach’s 2007 fiscal year, as drafted: $9.375 million from the general fund, with $4.793 million of that in the operating budget, $1.092 million in the capital budget for the year, $1.159 million in capital projects remaining and budgeted in prior fiscal years. The remaining expenditures include reserve funds for emergencies, beach and boardwalk, upcoming Sanitation Department needs and unfunded contingencies.

On the revenue side: a matching $9.375 million, including $4.15 million from cash and investments existing at the start of the fiscal year and $5.225 million in revenue for the year.

The town’s Water Department — a separate financial entity — has a draft budget of $1.857 million, including $397,000 in capital budgeting and $198,900 in remaining capital projects from previous years. The Water Department’s debt service is anticipated to bring in $428,000 in both revenues and expenses.

With extensive information on all those issues and the overall content of the draft budget for the 2007 fiscal year, committee members unanimously voted to give it their approval. With that recommendation, a March 17 public hearing was set, for 2 p.m. at the town hall.

After that hearing, the town council members will receive the budget for their own discussion and vote, prior to the April 1 start of the fiscal year.