Sussex County Delaware

Fenwick Outlines Plan
for Financial Goals
 
Fenwick Island News

Residents Question Figures
in March Financial Report

By ERIC MAGILL
SC Online Publisher

After a year of revelations of financial mismanagement in Fenwick Island, the town council has begun discussing three-year financial goals in an effort to rebuild public confidence.

Council vice president Harry Haon said at the Friday, March 28, 2003 council meeting that the proposed goals include the following:

  • Maintaining tax rates and fees at or below current rates;

  • Pursuing opportunities for government grants;

  • Identifying cost-effective ways to provide services and administrative functions;

  • Setting aside funds for future projects and capital needs;

  • Offering competitive salary and benefits packages;

  • Using part of the town's revenues from real estate transfer taxes to cover deficits in the town's general fund and reserving at least one-third of those revenues for long-term infrastructure improvements such as beach replenishment and canal dredging;

  • Growing and maintaining the town's uncommitted cash reserves to 50 percent of the annual budget;

  • Maximizing interest income by fully utilizing the state's investment pool, DELGIP.

Haon stressed that "they are goals, they are not necessarily absolute commitments."

Council member Theo Brans urged the council to include the hiring of a town manager in its long-term goals. He referred to a "heated discussion' on the subject at a recent budget workshop, and said, "I don't want this to be put on the back burner. First thing, we should get the chief in order, and the next step should be a town manager," Brans said.

Brans referred to the town's recent financial snafus -- including the failure to have its books audited for four years and the failure to pay state and federal employee withholding during that time, saying, "We've learned our lesson on this."

Council member Vicki Carmean agreed with Brans, saying, "I feel like the time has come" for the town to consider hiring a town manager.

Financial Report Questioned

At least half a dozen residents raised questions during the town's monthly financial report, which included a report on financial activity through the first half of the fiscal year.

The questions centered on why the town's budget includes federal COPS grants funds when they can not be spent, where the $98,000 came from with which the town paid back employee withholding taxes to the state, an inaccurate real estate transfer tax figure, and other topics.

Council member Peter Frederick explained that listing transfer taxes in two places with two different figures -- $110,000 in one place and $107,702 in another -- was merely a mistake and would be corrected, with the $107,702 figure.

Frederick also said the $98,000 in back employee withholding taxes doesn't affect the town's budget because it had already been counted as spent. "It's a reduction of cash," Haon said. "It's already been expensed."

Residents were also told the COPS grant will not be spent. The town has been the subject of a federal Department of Justice inquiry into its possible illegal use of COPS grant funds to supplant town funds.

In the middle of the discussion, town council president Peg Baunchalk expressed impatience with the questions and asked, "Can we move on with this?"

Police Chief Search Advertised

Public safety commissioner Edward "Buzz" Henifin announced that he will be the "facilitator" for Fenwick Island's police chief search committee. Brans and council member Richard Griffin will represent the council on the committee, which will also include residents Mary Pat Kyle and Dick Bowman and two Delaware State Police captains. Bowman will chair the comittee.

So far, advertisements have run in daily newspapers from Philadelphia to Norfolk, as well as local weekly newspapers and regional dailies. Ads have also been placed on the Fenwick Island web site and two national law enforcement web sites. The ads will be paid for from the police department's advertising budget, which includes a yearly total of $3,6000 -- $84 of which had been spent through February.

So far, Henifin said, the town has received nine responses. The search committee's next meeting will be April 8, during which the committee will discuss criteria for resumé review. This could be the last search committee meeting that will be open to the public; once the committee begins discussing specific applicants, the meetings will be closed.

Henifin said the committee will review all the applications and will recommend the top two or three candidates, unranked, to the town council.

No Help for Lifeguards

Brans, Fenwick Island's beach safety commissioner, said he has spoken with state Rep. Gerald Hocker (R-38th) about getting assistance from the state with lifeguard coverage for the unincorporated area south of town.

"Things don't look too good because the state doesn't have the money," Brans said. He added that the possibility of extending the state park to accommodate coastal and inland growth "is dead also," for the same reason.

Brans also announced plans for a bonfire on the beach Aug. 9 and featuring music, storytelling and refreshments. Tickets to the event will be sold, with proceeds going to the town's lifeguards.

Haon suggested that Brans go to the Sussex County Council and ask for help in funding lifeguards that cover the unincorporated area. Haon said the since the unincorporated area falls under county control, it's time for the council to "step up to the plate" and fund lifeguards there. "Why isn't the county making contributions to lifeguards in front of county properties?" Haon asked.

Haon also said he believes the county has fallen behind the state regarding wetland buffer zones. He said Kent County and New Castle County, as well as the state of Maryland, all require 100-foot buffers, while Sussex County requires only 50 feet.

"I think it's clear we can't rely on the county to do too much for the environment," Haon said. He also faulted the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control for not taking the initiative on the issue. "Where's DNREC on this?" he asked.

Council Recall Law Requested

During the public participation portion of the meeting, Scott Mumford, whose family owns Warren's Station Restaurant in Fenwick Island, suggested the council consider placing a clause in the town charter allowing for removal of council members for reasons including willful violation of the charter to failure to attend council meetings.

While Mumford said his comments were directed at "future councils," he joined a number of residents who, in the wake of revelations of management irregularities, have called for some sort of forfeiture of office or recall procedure.

Haon pointed out that what Mumford was asking for was different from earlier requests by resident Chris Clark for recall procedures, through which voters could oust council members.

Baunchalk commented, regarding questions of qualification for office, that "I don't think anyone that sits up here is qualified to do the job. It's a training in progress," Baunchalk said.

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