State Police Plans, Either
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GEORGETOWN -- Sussex County Council, after four years of surpluses, got what Sussex County Administrator Robert L. Stickels called a dose of reality during the first reading of the proposed Fiscal Year 2002 Budget on Tuesday, May 22, 2001.
Citing the slowing economy, the impact of potential cuts from state and federal sources, and rising costs of providing services to a county that grew 38 percent in the 1990s, Stickels presented the county's budget with the theme "Realistic Expectations".
Stickels told council that despite the county's continued $7 million reserve, uncertainty in the economy and in state and federal programs made it unrealistic to expect the county to be able cut taxes, pay for additional police protection, or pay for a county parks and recreation program.
Those items have been frequently requested by county residents eyeing the county's continued surpluses, but the proposed $31,232,577 general fund budget, which contains a 3.72 percent increase in expenditures, includes none of them.
The public will be able to comment on the budget at a hearing on Tuesday, June 19, 2001, in council chambers at 10:30 a.m.
Stickels said that while he and the county's Department of Finance couldn't make room for the requested items, the county won't have to raise taxes for the 12th straight year. The tax rate will remain at 44.5¢ per $100 of assessed value.
Stickels reminded residents that the county collects property taxes for the county's school districts and that the average taxpayer pays only about $85 a year in county taxes. The remainder of taxpayers' bills go to the schools.
Stickels also answered criticism of the county's burgeoning reserve, saying the "Rainy Day Fund" must be kept at 25 percent, or $7 million, to "avoid shortfalls that other governments are currently experiencing". He said the fund will also allow the county to participate in cost-sharing programs not included in the 2002 budget if it so chooses.
County Councilman Vance Phillips, who has been critical of the reserve in the past, saying the county should not build such large reserves of private assets, declined to second-guess the proposed budget on Tuesday.
"This is a good, conservative, fiscally responsible budget, and as long as we maintain a disciplined approach to spending increases, I won't make an issue of it," said Phillips of the reserve.
Phillips said he would like to have seen a tax cut but knew he couldn't get the three votes needed for one. He said he was satisfied with the 3.72 percent increase in general fund expenditures because it was "less than President Bush's recommendation of a 4 percent increase (for the national economy)."
"We've had a very robust economy the last four years and to the credit of the administration, it hasn't overspent," said Phillips. "In contrast, should the economy slow significantly, we'll be in a position to maintain our level of services without a tax increase. This budget funds our priorities."
Sussex County Sheriff Robert Reed said he wasn't surprised that the budget doesn't include his request to set up a county police force with 32 deputies. He added, however, that he will continue his battle to raise his deputies' starting salaries from the approved increase of $20,000 a year to $25,000 at the public hearing on June 19.
The budget doesn't include, either, a request from Delaware Senator H. George Bunting Jr. for $1.8 million for new state police officers to fight drugs in Sussex County's unincorporated areas, or a request from the Sussex County Association of Towns for assistance for municipal police departments that answer calls in unincorporated areas.
Stickels said the county can't afford the additional officers Bunting requested. He called the state's request "unrealistic" when it is asking Public Safety Secretary James Ford to reduce his budget by nearly $1 million. The budget does include a slight increase to $372,000 for the 12 state troopers the county pays for now. He said SCAT did not request a specific amount of funding.
As for establishing a parks and recreation department, Stickels said the state park system is good enough and that a duplication of those services wouldn't be a good use of the county's money.
Stickels said that President Bush's proposed $1.6 trillion tax cut could also have a negative impact on the county with the reduction or elimination of programs the county has used in the past.
"My own personal experience has been that the last time we had a major federal tax overhaul, local governments suffered," said Stickels. "Balanced budget policies that were implemented under the Reagan Administration resulted in local governments losing Federal Revenue Sharing and the elimination of the United States Environmental Protection Agency Construction Grant Program for water and sewer infrastructure.
"During the budget year, it will be the responsibility of the Budget Committee, as well as the County Council and individual employees, to adhere to the budget limitations that are imposed in the 2002 budget."
Other items of note in the FY2002 Budget:
Manufactured Homes Removed ...
County Administrator Robert L. Stickels informed council that the county constable's office has removed 17 of the original 20 mobile homes targeted for removal under the county's joint agreement with the First State Manufactured Housing Association.
The program, designed to remove abandoned mobile homes that have deteriorated into eyesores, will remove two more of the original 20 units in the coming week. The county has been unable to contact the owner of the other property yet.
Stickels said none of the funds allocated by the county or the First State Manufactured Housing Association have been used in the removals. He said he has asked the constable's office to identify 20 more homes to be presented to council in June, 2001.In Other Business ...
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