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GEORGETOWN -- Sussex County Council unanimously passed an $83.9 million budget for Fiscal Year 2003 at its regular meeting on Tuesday, June 18, 2002.
Council approved a 3.99 percent increase in general fund expenditures to $32.4 million, maintaining the current tax rate for the 13th straight year, and maintaining an operating reserve of 22.3 percent, or $7 million.
Council approved the assessment rolls and charges for all sewer and water districts for the Fiscal Year by a 4-0 vote, as well.
Only Councilman Lynn Rogers questioned the vote, saying that while he supported the budget, he preferred to wait a week to give a request from the county's libraries for a capitation tax more consideration and to consider funding requests for the humane society, the Slam Dunk to the Beach basketball tournament, and for discretionary accounts from Councilman George Cole, who was out of town.
Council did approve a motion by Councilman Dale Dukes to increase county employee salaries by 1 percent in January 2003 for a spending increase of $66,000 to $70,000.
Besides the general fund, the budget also includes $8.06 million for the Capital Improvement Fund, $2.281 million for the Community Development Fund, $22.9 million for sewer and water districts, $18.1 million for new capital projects, and $1 million to start the county's open space program.
Based on the theme "Changing Times" and citing the 9/11 terror attacks, County Administrator Robert L. Stickels said the county must adapt to changing needs for public services such as police and emergency services and other increased costs.
"There is talk that the county is flush with money," said Stickels. "I'm not in agreement that we are flush with money, but we are stable."
The county has committed $700,000 this year for additional state troopers and has added a new paramedic unit in western Sussex County. The county's insurance premiums have also risen $600,000.
Cole continued to question the county's investment in the Sussex County Airport, as he asked in a letter to Stickels how much income the airport is generating.
Stickels said that although the airport, like most other airports, does not make money, income from the airport has increased from $12,800 in 1988 to $132,000 this year and $160,000 next year. In addition, Stickels said the airport and companies leasing space there have provided 600 jobs with a $13 million payroll, or an average salary of $21,666.
Cole also requested $25,000 for the building fund for the proposed Coastal Leisure Center in Cedar Neck and $2,500 from each council member for the Slam Dunk to the Beach basketball tournament.
The budget also contains cost of living increases for 2 percent for county employees, 1 percent for pensioners, and a 2 percent salary adustment for paramedics.
"This is a basic budget," said Stickels. "There's not much fluff in here. We are pleased that we are able to continue to fund the programs we have funded in the past, but we made the decision not to fund any new programs this year (with grants)."
In addition, although realty transfer tax revenue will surpass property tax revenue for the first time this year, annexations by municipalities in the county are eroding the county's transfer tax revenue and contributing to decreased surpluses.
The budget committee also recommended that the county continue its policy of outsourcing many services such as police protection. Recognizing that many county residents are clamoring for new services, the committee quoted James Reston, who once wrote, "Nations, like individuals, have to limit their objectives or take the consequences."
The county will contribute $4.4 million in grants to organizations such as the county libraries and sewer districts and the Sussex Conservation Districts, $6.4 million to county paramedics, and $3 million for the county's pension fund.
Stickels noted that the paramedic costs have increased 64 percent in the past five years due mainly to the addition of two new paramedic units. Another paramedic unit will be added to the western side of the county this year.
He also said that the pension program's costs will continue to increase as more employees become vested.
Stickels noted that the county has discovered an additional 3,334 residents who should be paying the county's Capitation Tax.
"While everything isn't going to everybody," said Dukes, "we continue to address the needs that are most pertinent and keep an eye on the things that will be needed in the future. I think it's a good budget."Police Funding ...
Council heard concerns from resident John Reid regarding the proposed operating reserve and its plan to fund additional state police officers in the county.
Reid said the county needs to fill in the "missing link" in police services by providing a county force or allowing the sheriff's department to fill the void left by municipal and state police.
He said the money the county is spending on state police should go toward some form of county force.
"The funds dedicated to the state police could be more used for county police or the sheriff," said Reid. "County funds are supposed to be used for county purposes, not state purposes."
The council members, who voted to fund an additional four state police officers per year up to a maximum of 20 as part of their battle with Sheriff Robert Reed, did not respond to Reid's comments.
Reid also questioned the county's 22 percent rainy day fund. He said it was excessive for a county that operates on a balanced budget.
"As the county's revenues grow, we'll have more reserve than we'll ever need," said Reid.
County Administrator Robert L. Stickels said the county has received a AA bond rating because it keeps a 20 to 25 percent reserve that is recommended by bond rating companies.
"If we were under 20 percent," said Stickels, "it could cost the taxpayers money with higher interest rates in bond issues."
Stickels also noted the presence of five state superfund sites and one federal superfund site in the county.
"Just one superfund site has cost us $3 million," said Stickels, "so you can see how quickly that money can disappear."Library Funding ...
As part of the budget hearing, council tabled a request from Dennis Forney of the Lewes Public Library Board of Trustees for the county to implement a $6 Capitation Tax to provide a sustained source of funding for the county's 11 independent libraries.
In 10 months of meetings between the libraries and with county council members, Forney told council that the libraries had developed a formula for distributing the $379,000 that would have been raised by the tax.
Forney said the plan would represent a $12 to $18 a year tax increase for county residents.
Forney said that while the libraries appreciate the grants the county gives to the libraries, that the libraries need a sustained source of income to cover basic operating expenses because the grants can come and go from one year to the next.
He said the libraries have also generated millions of dollars in donations from the private sector.
Councilman Dale Dukes, however, said he couldn't agree with a new tax when the county was already funding 100 percent of the libraries' funding requests.
Dukes said he understood the libraries' needs, but felt other funding options should be pursued, such as making the public aware that they can contribute money in their wills to the library system.
He also challenged the assertion from the libraries that they serve 50,000 people a week. Dukes said that would represent 130 people per hour. Dee Bradley, the president of the Rehoboth Beach Library Board of Trustees, said her library serves, on average, 1,000 people per day.
Councilmen Vance Phillips and Lynn Rogers concurred with Dukes and said they would not allow the libraries' funding needs to "go on the back burner."
Council President Finley B. Jones said that council shouldn't make a rash decision and that the proposal will not die.
Phillips added that it may be two or three years before council acts on the proposal, as he compared it to the three years it took for council to add the new paramedic unit on the county's western side.Comprehensive Plan Update ...
County Administrator Robert L. Stickels alerted council to a workshop and two public hearings regarding the finalization of the county's 2002 Comprehensive Land Use Plan update.
A joint workshop of the Planning & Zoning Commission and county council will be held on July 9 at 5 p.m. to finalize the plan for presentation to the public at the two public hearings. That workshop will be in the county's West Administrative Complex on U.S. 113 in Georgetown.
Planning and Zoning will then hold a public hearing at 6 p.m. on Aug. 15 in the CHEER Center off Route 9 in Georgetown. County Council will hold its public hearing at 6 p.m. on Sept. 10, also in the CHEER Center.
Stickels said drafts of the updated plan will be made available to the public the week of Aug. 26.
The county is required to update its comprehensive plan every five years. The update must be completed by October.In Other Business ...
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