General Fund Up 3.7 Percent
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GEORGETOWN -- Sussex County Council unanimously approved the Fiscal Year 2002 Operating Budget following a public hearing on Tuesday, June 19, 2001.
Council also approved the assessment rolls and connection, usage and service charges for the county's water and sewer districts with a half-dozen sewer districts to see rate reductions in the coming year.
The $77.5 million budget represents a 3.8 percent decrease from the Fiscal Year 2001 Budget of $80.6 million. It consists of $31,232,577 in General Fund expenses -- a 3.7 percent increase -- $2,492,360 for a Capital Improvement Fund, $2,975,027 for the Community Development Fund, $21,353,823 for Sewer and Water Districts, and $19,543,000 for a Capital Projects Program.
County Administrator Robert L. Stickels said a tax increase would not be necessary to pay for the increase in General Fund expenses and said the 3.7 percent increase met federal recommendations of an increase of no more than 4 percent. The FY2002 Budget is the 12th straight without a tax increase from the county's rate of $.44.5 / $100 of assessed value.
The budget passed unchanged from the first reading in May. The 4-0 vote maintained a reserve fund of $7 million, or 25 percent, provided for live Internet coverage of county council meetings, and established a Capital Improvement Fund.
Council rejected proposals from Sen. George H. Bunting Jr., Sheriff Robert Reed, the Sussex County Association of Towns, and a Frankford resident to provide funding for more police protection. It also rejected a request from Sheriff Reed for $18,000 to raise the pay of existing deputies.
Also denied were requests to fund a county parks and recreation program, a request for $25,000 for the Technical Assistance Program at Delaware Tech, and a request for a funding increase from $15,000 to $35,000 from Slam Dunk to the Beach founder Bobby Jacobs.
Council President Dale Dukes and Councilmen Finley Jones, Vance Phillips and Lynn Rogers voted to adopt the budget and praised the county administration and finance staffs for their work. Councilman George Cole was not in attendance due to a previous family commitment but submitted a letter supporting the request for additional state police funding from Sen. Bunting and the county's grant subsidies.
"Everybody might not get what they want," said Dukes, "but we try to do what we can with what we have to work with. The $7 million is where it should be. The staff is doing such a fine job of controlling expenses."
"It's very unusual for everyone to get what they want out of a budget," concurred Phillips. "This budget is fiscally responsible. It's a good budget."
The budget theme for FY2002 is Realistic Expectations. According to Stickels, because of the downturn in the economy and cutbacks in state and federal budgets, he said it was unrealistic to expect the county to be able to pay for additional programs such as police and parks while maintaining the 25 percent reserve.
"Population increases compound the problem," said Stickels of decisions made in the FY2002 Budget. "We try to limit expenses, but with a population increase of 38.3 percent since 1990, it's more difficult and even more satisfying that we were able to keep our general fund increase under 4 percent."
Stickels said the reserve is necessary because it gives the county a better rating with bond companies and provides a cushion for emergencies and in the event the multi-million dollar surpluses the county has experienced in the past few years disappear.
He said the 25 percent figure matches the same level that got the county a AA bond rating from Moody's. The reserve has grown, he said, from $400,000 in 1990.
"I remember what it was like when we only had $400,000," said Dukes. "When I first came on, we prayed that we wouldn't have a catastrophe because we had nowhere to get the money."
Most of the county's revenue will come from property taxes, the realty transfer tax, fees and services, and the appropriated portion of the surplus. Property taxes account for 23.1 percent of revenues, realty transfer taxes for 21.18 percent, fees and services for 14.69 percent, and the surplus for 10.61 percent.
Paramedic services, finance and data processing services, the reserve, and grants account for most of the expenditures. Paramedics account for 15.34 percent of expenses, finance and data processing for 11.8 percent, contingencies and reserves for 10.68 percent, and grants for 10.41 percent.
Of the appropriated reserve funds, 36 percent will go to sewer and water projects, 19 percent to the capital project reserve, 17 percent to bring the unappropriated reserve fund to 25 percent of operating expenses, and 10 percent for assessment, tax and utility billing software.
The county will spend almost $9.4 million on public safety programs with most going to fire, ambulance and paramedic services. The county wll spend $372,778 for 12 additional state troopers, which represents a 4.6 percent increase, and $329,981 for the sheriff's department, or a decrease of 5.4 percent from the FY2001 budget.
Sheriff Reed, in his continuing battle with the council over funding and the department's duties, objected to the cut in his budget. He said his department had worked within its previous budget constraints and projected it would have a surplus in FY2001 of approximately $100,000.
Stickels and Dukes challenged Reed's claim, saying that the sheriff's department doesn't have to pay for rent and utilities and that it operated without a full staff for much of Fiscal Year 2001, thereby reducing the department's expenses.
Reed, however, said he needed an additional $13,007 for raises for existing deputies. County Finance Director David Baker said the total increase would be approximately $18,000 when benefits and taxes were figured in.
"We're trying to keep well-trained deputies in the sheriff's office and it's awfully hard to keep well-trained deputies (at current salaries)," said the sheriff. "This increase would bring our deputies' salaries up to what is a reasonable amount for law enforcement in the county."
Dukes questioned the need for the raises and took a shot at Reed's previous requests for expanding the sheriff's department into a policing agency when he asked Reed if he had heard that Dorchester County, Md., was considering establishing a county police force and reducing the sheriff's duties to serving papers and conducting sheriff's sales -- the current duties of Reed's department.
"It's a big mistake to establish a county police force," said Reed. "The big thing with appointed officers is there is no accountability. That's the benefit of having elected officials."
In another public safety matter, Stickels said the county plans to add a seventh paramedic district to relieve the burden on the Blades paramedic district, which serves the entire U.S. 13 corridor except for Delmar.
Although the state's budget office has said the county's call volume doesn't justify a seventh district, Stickels said the Town of Delmar has expressed dissatisfaction with its paramedic services from Wicomico County, Md., and might be added to the Blades district.
The budget also includes improvements to the county's water and wastewater systems in Dewey Beach, Bethany Beach, South Bethany, Fenwick Island, Dagsboro-Frankford and Henlopen Acres, as well as $2.8 million for the county's library system.
Rezoning Tabled ...
Council took the unusual step of tabling a rezoning request when it rescinded a motion to approve the request of Long Neck businessman David A. Ritter.
Council took the unusual action because Ritter built and started his Full Tilt Marine boat sales and service business on Route 24 in Long Neck in a residential district before obtaining the required commercial zoning.
Ritter pleaded guilty in Justice of the Peace Court on Friday, June 15, 2001, to disregarding zoning regulations. He is being fined $100 a day -- totalling more than $4,000 so far -- and will continue to be fined until the matter is resolved, according to County Solicitor Eugene Bayard.
Bayard said council will have to decide to approve the rezoning or deny it and spend county resources to close the business down.
Ritter's wife, Kathy Ritter, said she and her husband had no comment on the matter when reached Wednesday.
As a result of Ritter's actions, council asked Bayard to draft ordinances that would give the county more forceful cease and desist powers in such matters.
Councilman Lynn Rogers agreed with the Planning & Zoning Commission's recommendation that the application be denied because it would set a precedent for other businesses to disregard zoning regulations by just paying a fine.
"This case bugs me as much as anything that's come before us since I've been here," said Rogers. "The violations are one thing. But at the Planning and Zoning hearing, Mr. Ritter said, 'I just couldn't wait for you guys'. He's been in business for more than 15 years. There's a business next door to him that is trying to get all of the necessary permits.
"I think this sets a bad tone and puts our Planning and Zoning director in a bad position by setting a precedent. If we pass this today, and I was the next guy who was cited, it would be a news story."
Council, however, appeared to be split on whether Ritter's rezoning should be granted. Councilman Vance Phillips and Rogers voted no, but Councilman Finley Jones voted yes because he felt the request was in compliance with the Comprehensive Land Use Plan even if Ritter was "morally wrong".
As Council President Dale Dukes began to speak, County Administrator Robert L. Stickels asked that the matter be tabled until the full council was present. Councilman George Cole was out of town on a previous family commitment. Council then unanimously decided to table the issue.
"This is the first time since I've been on council (13 years) that an application has come in and gone through the whole process without getting the proper zoning," said Dukes. "And this (tabling) is another first."In Other Business ...
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