SC Online Content Editor
GEORGETOWN -- Sussex County Council on Tuesday, June 17, 2003, approved the county's $106 million budget for 2004, with no tax increase for county residents.
The council passed the budget after adding $15,000 for three items: the annual Punkin' Chunkin' competition, renovation of a historic Laurel home, and the Delaware Community Foundation.
The council declined, however, to fund Sheriff Robert Reed's proposed expansion of the sheriff's department. Reed had asked the council to divert $906,000 slated for expanded coverage by the Delaware State Police to his department.
During the public hearing before the vote, several residents urged the council to consider Reed's proposal.
Georgetown resident George Truitt said members of his Neighborhood Watch group support Reed because the Delaware State Police are "spread too thin" in Sussex. "We've got to wake up and begin to get some kind of enforcement," particularly in unincorporated areas and particularly with drug problems, Truitt said.
Al Gargano, president of Sussex County Lodge No. 2 of the Fraternal Order of Police, said "100 percent" of the lodge's members -- representing most of the municipal police officers in the county -- support Reed. Gargano said the people of Sussex County re-elected Reed to the post last November, and "the people would like to see ... what he can do."
But Phillips said he didn't believe most Sussex County residents support Reed's efforts to expand both the scope and the size of the sheriff's department. "It doesn't appear that there's a groundswell of public support," for Reed's proposal, Phillips said.
Dukes said while "I give the Sheriff credit" for trying to improve law enforcement in the county, "I feel the best investment is with the Delaware State Police and the partnership we've got."
Council President Lynn Rogers, D-Milton, said he believes there are "many, many shortfalls" in Reed's plan to expand his department. Rogers said he believes Reed and his staff have underestimated the cost of startup for satellite offices, maintenance of the offices, and operating costs for the satellite offices.
The council also declined to help the town of Bethany Beach fund its annual fireworks celebration. Bethany Beach Mayor Joseph McHugh had asked the council for $5,000 to help defray the cost of a barge to light the fireworks on. The barge is necessary, McHugh said, because winter storms left the beach too narrow to be used as a launch site. The town needs $16,000 to hire the barge.
The county budget, which includes a 19.8 percent increase in spending over the previous year, was approved 3-1, with council member George Cole, R-Cedar Neck, absent. Cole's absence -- this was the fourth year in a row he has missed the budget vote -- was the subject of some discussion before the vote.
Council member Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, favored deferring the vote until Cole returned. "I'd just as soon not give him the political cover he's trying to take," Phillips said. Council member Dale Dukes, D-Laurel, disagreed. "I don't think it's too much to ask an elected official to show up when he's supposed to on Tuesdays," Dukes said.
Phillips was the sole council member voting against the proposed budget. He asked council to defer a vote on the budget to consider an alternate plan with only a 4 percent increase. "It's disappointing that we've deviated from the fiscally responsible course that we worked so hard to achieve," Phillips said.
The fiscal 2004 budget tops $100 million for the first time ever, totaling $106,923,130. The large increase in expenditures is due to unusually large appropriated reserves expenditures and a $1 million economic development stimulus program.
The jump in appropriated reserves, from $2.5 million in 2003 to a proposed $6.2 million in 2004, is due to revenue expenditure savings from the 2002 budget, Stickels said.
That year, the value of building permits alone in Sussex topped those in Kent and New Castle combined. "With continued growth in property assessments and population, it is inevitable that the percent of budget expenditures will exceed past budgets," Stickels said in his 104-page budget "letter", which lays out the county's 2004 spending plan.
The average single family homeowner in Sussex County has paid $89 yearly in county taxes since 1990. The average manufactured home owner pays $37 a year. The tax rate remains at 44.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. The average Sussex County home is assessed at $20,105; the county has not reassessed properties since 1975.Council Opposes Tax Increment Bill
New Castle County Executive Thomas Gordon on Tuesday, June 17, reinforced Sussex County Council's opposition to Senate Bill 66, which would set up a structure where counties and towns could enact taxes in specific areas to help fund certain development projects.
Gordon said his staff ran a model of the proposed tax and found "it really doesn't work. It doesn't create a lot of money," he said.
Sussex County Council member Vance Phillips, meanwhile, asked Gordon if he thought the tax increment funding system could help move the cost of development from "native" Sussex Countians to "those coming in from afar."
Phillips said he saw the proposal as a possible way "to pull a little bit more (money) out of the newcomers." But Gordon said new tax districts wouldn't be worth the trouble. "Why would you want to create a two-, three- or four-tier system?" he asked.
Sussex County's Finance Director, David Baker, said "I just don't think it's practical." Baker said his major concern "is the county issuing revenue bonds for a project like this." Baker said if the bill passes -- and it is being heavily lobbied -- "we'd want to establish criteria pretty quickly," to ensure that it is used only for "development that had a major public purpose."In Other Business ...
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