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Sussex budget is sign of times

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

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County projects modest increase in realty transfer tax

For the first time in four years, Sussex County employees will see a modest cost-of-living raise. The county's fiscal 2012 budget includes a 2 percent pay increase for the county's 500 employees, but annual anniversary increases have been nixed.

On May 17 county officials unveiled a proposed $139 million budget, a plan that is down slightly from the current year's budget, but largely follows the fiscal 2011 budget in projected revenue and expenditures. The proposed general fund operating budget includes an overall increase of 2.4 percent, or $1.1 million, to nearly $48 million in fiscal 2012.

The projected increase will be tied to an expected $870, 000 bump in realty transfer tax revenue. The general fund budget is expected to rebound for the first time in three years, but it is still not close to $58 million in 2008 and $57 million in 2009.

Taxpayers will get a small break. The proposed budget calls for no property tax increase for the 22nd year in a row and elimination of the $3-per-person capitation tax. The average county tax bill for a single-family home remains at just over $106. The average manufactured home resident pays $40 a year.

"The proposed budget stays

the course of the past few years, keeping spending under control while maintaining the quality services we provide to the public," said County Administrator David Baker. "There is improvement, though, including a slight increase in expected real estate revenue. That's a positive sign, one that we hope will continue in the future."

Transfer tax could rise slightly

Building-related revenue, which is the engine in the county's economic machine, is expected to increase for the first time in two years. Revenue from building-related sources - including taxes, building inspection fees, permits and recorder of deeds fees - is expected to increase about $1 million to $20 million in fiscal 2012, still far from the $50 million in fiscal 2005 and fiscal 2006.

Budget planners estimate the realty transfer tax to increase 7 percent over fiscal 2011 to $13.6 million; the tax generated in fiscal 2004 was $36.3 million and $35.3 million in fiscal 2006.

"The economy still has not rebounded, so the county, just like any other business or household,

remains limited in what it has to work with," said Finance Director Susan Webb. "This budget reflects the continued economic realities we face."

Eighty-five percent of the county's revenue comes from four sources. Realty transfer taxes provide 27 percent of the county's general operating funds with 26 percent provided by property taxes. Fees and services provide another 20 percent while state and federal grants account for 12 percent of funds.

Increase for some sewer users

Some county sewer users will see increases - from $8 to $15 annually - as the county continues its efforts to implement uniform service charges for most of its 64, 000 customers. Customers in Bethany Beach districts, Ellen-dale and Oak Orchard will see an $8 increase, and customers in the Long Neck district will see a $15 increase. The county has set a benchmark of $246 for annual service charges, which does not include annual assessment fees paid for front footage.

The Angola system is expected to come online July 1. Because of federal stimulus funds, low interest rates and lower construction costs - $10 million less than estimates - users will not have to pay the estimated $3, 375 connection fee. In addition, the annual charges have been decreased 22 percent from more than $1, 000 per year to $820 per year. Baker said 1, 400 individual septic systems in the Angola area are now on central sewer.

Sheriff's Office gets some help

Baker said under the proposed budget, the sheriffs office budget would increase 29 percent from $650, 000 in fiscal 2011 to more than $838, 000 in fiscal 2012. Baker said two clerks were added to the staff in 2011 to help with a backlog of paperwork In addition, a part-time deputy is proposed in the fiscal 2012 budget. Baker said it's not exactly the one clerical and two full-time deputies as requested by Sheriff Jeff Christopher. "We'll wait for next year to see if there is a need for another position and we can do that," he said.

Finance Director Susan Webb said inroads are being made on the department's backlog and another full-time person may not be needed.

The department is expected to collect $2.8 million in fiscal 2012, a 17 percent increase over 2011.

Public safety dominates budget

Public safety expenditures are 42 percent of the county's general fund budget. In the fiscal 2012 plan is $12 million for paramedics; $1.7 million for 40 additional Delaware state troopers on patrol in the county; $2.6 million to the county's emergency preparedness program; and $3.3 million to the county's volunteer fire and ambulance services.

The paramedic program continues to be the county's most expensive department accounting for 24 percent of the expenditures in the general fund - a 10 percent decrease over the past three years. The county is expected to provide $5.8 million to libraries, including county-owned and local libraries.

The county will continue to support its grants-in-aid program with more than $7.8 million, only half the grants issued in fiscal 2008. Included among the 16 items in the budget are funds for police, volunteer fire and ambulance companies, housing assistance, councilman-ic grants, human service grants, the open space program and Sussex Conservation District.

The county has pledged to support the First State Community Action Agency's capital campaign with $25, 000 a year for the next four years.

In addition to a cost-of-living raise, county employees can take advantage of a new college tuition reimbursement program.

Anniversary increases have been removed from the budget. Baker said the automatic increase was eliminated because it makes more sense to provide cost-of-living and merit raises.

Plans to spend $41M on projects

The budget includes $7 million in capital for projects as well as $34 million for wastewater projects. Included is $2.4 million for the 500-foot expansion of the county's airport; $1.5 million for the Greenwood library project; $1.3 million for an upgraded emergency communications building; $775, 000 for property acquisition (including additional lands for airport runway expansion); and $500, 000 for computer software.

That software would allow staff to provide better tracking of planning and zoning applications.

Baker said county staff would continue to develop a financing plan for another 500-foot expansion of the county's main runway.

Big-ticket items included in the capital water and sewer budget are: $12 million for upgrades at the South Coastal Regional Wastewater Facility; $9.6 million for expansion in Oak Orchard; $7.9 million for expansion of the Inland Bays Regional Wastewater Facility; $6.4 million for expansion in Angola; and $6.5 million for Millville expansion.

The county plans to spend $172 million on projects over the next five years.

Budget is retiring Baker's final one

The fiscal 2012 budget process, which takes several months, was die final one for retiring County Administrator David Baker, who is leaving the county after 33 years.

When asked if he would miss the annual event, he didn't answer, but did give a smile.

"The last few years have been a real challenge as we adapted to the economy," Baker said. "We've had to change the way we did business, but I think we have weathered most of the storm."

Baker he was most proud of the fact that during the tough economic times - when most government bodies were laying people off - the county has been able to retrain and redistribute staff to save jobs.

In comparison, budgets in the late 1980s were about $18 million. The proposed fiscal 2012 budget is more than $139 million Baker said expansion of the county's sewer system has helped to drive the budget. Today, 20 percent of county staff - about 100 employees - are involved with the sewer and water business. In 1978, there were 3, 000 EDUs in die system; today there are more than 64, 000.

Original Publication Date: May 20, 2011

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