Taxes won’t increase in Sussex County again this year, and there won’t be any unnecessary expenditures in the County’s 2021-fiscal-year budget, a document influenced by the financial impact of the coronavirus.

That was the message County Administrator Todd Lawson shared with the Sussex County Council on Tuesday, May 19, as he introduced the proposed $158 million budget, which is 15 percent less than last year’s $186 million spending plan.

The budget was “designed with revenues projected to be down 65 percent to 85 percent of their 2020-fiscal-year levels, reflecting the current financial uncertainty wrought by the global pandemic,” according to a news release issued by the council.

Spending is reduced or delayed in many areas, with no new programs or projects, and no increase in General Fund-associated fees.

“This is a different budget, different than anything we have seen in recent memory, if ever,” Lawson stated in the new release.

“It keeps spending to an absolute minimum and doesn’t include any new major capital projects or purchases, but I’m proud to say it keeps our employees working and our operations funded so we can continue to deliver the services our public depends on each and every day,” Lawson stated.

Highlights include:

• $1 million to engineer a public safety complex to expand the Emergency Operations Center for the Emergency Medical Services’ offices and training facilities.

• Maintained funding of $3.4 million for a contract with the State for 22 supplemental state police troopers assigned to Sussex County.

• $750,000 to expand broadband internet in rural areas.

• $1.7 million to preserve open space and farmland.

• Funding for 12 positions for EMS, the Emergency Operations Center and engineering departments. Eight positions are for Emergency Operations.

County Finance Director Gina Jennings said the budget could change during the new fiscal year.

“If revenues derived from the realty transfer tax, building permits, building inspections and through document filings in the Recorder of Deeds office exceed a given quarter’s budget by at least $1 million, numerous departmental expenses, purchases and projects or initiatives could be restored through prioritized budget amendments,” she stated in the news release.

“This budget reflects the uncertainly of these times” Lawson told council members on Tuesday.

Lawson said one area affected by the coronavirus is building permits, which continue to be pulled.

“It is only a matter of time before we will see an impact,” Lawson said, explaining that, before the outbreak of the virus, and subsequent closings in mid-March, Sussex County was on track to have the largest number of building permits in one month in the history of the county, but the numbers stalled.

The County will continue on a path of fiscal responsibility, he said, with hope the budget will “allow us to support residents with services if our revenues allow us to do so.”

Water service charge will increase

County residents will see a $15 increase in the water service charge. The annual increased cost overall will be $300,000, but because the year is about half over, the initial cost will be $150,000, Jennings said.

She proposed $15 increments for customers each year.

Jennings projected a 2 percent increase in building revenue, compared to a 10 percent increase during the past fiscal year.

She said building-related revenue is expected to be decreased by 5 percent this year.

The proposed budget includes a $220,000 increase for the county’s 11 libraries.

Capital projects might have to be postponed “until we see how the economy will be affected,” Jennings said.

Among them are improvements at the airport, including information technology (IT) infrastructure, with the broadband initiative and land acquisition.

The County bought the airport business park a few years ago and improvements are continuing.

Design of the airport apron expansion is expected to cost $300,000, and that project is eligible for grants, Jennings said.

Stormwater improvements are also planned, and are necessary to construct additional buildings there and expand the runway, she said.

“This is a different budget entering an unknown time. We needed to get creative,” Jennings said. For projects that should be completed in the future, she created supplemental budgets, so the projects can be done as funding becomes available.

Projects in those supplemental budgets include security fencing at the airport, and all training and seminars, currently put on hold unless required for certification.

“We’re not doing what can wait another year,” she said.

Parking lot striping, office equipment and various improvements are also in those supplemental budgets.

Jennings said it’s important for economic development that the County advertise lots the County has purchased. Six lots are available and three are under contract.

“We want to advertise the other three,” Jennings said.

Council President Michael Vincent said the budget “does what we need it to do, which is to keep the lights on and government running.”

The County Council will host a public hearing to comment on the budget at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, June 23. That meeting, like those recently held, could be by conference call, if the council chamber isn’t yet open due to coronavirus-related restrictions.

See budget details online at www.sussexcountyde.gov/county-budget.

Delaware law requires the council to adopt a budget by June 30.

On Tuesday, the council unanimously passed two ordinances to establish the 2021-fiscal-year budget — an ordinance establishing the annual operating budget for the 2021 fiscal year and an ordinance establishing annual service charges, annual assessment rates, for collection and transmission and-or treatment and connection charges for all Sussex County water and sanitary sewer districts.

Staff Reporter

Veteran news reporter Susan Canfora has written for many newspapers and held positions ranging from managing editor to her favorite, news reporter. She joined the Coastal Point in June 2019. She teaches college writing, tutors and professionally edits.