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Sussex County Council ...

Council Bond Rating
Jumps Two Grades

By KERIN MAGILL
SC Online Content Editor

GEORGETOWN -- The Sussex County Council got an early Christmas present from a bond rating service this week.

Sussex County's bond rating, an indicator of the county's financial strength and creditworthiness, has gone up two grades to AA -- a jump called unprecedented by a financial advisor for the county. County Adminstrator Robert Stickels announced the change at council's regular meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2002.

The rating, based on the county's $122.733 million in outstanding general obligation debt, rose from A+ in the latest Standard & Poor's review. The new rating, according to a statement from Standard & Poor's, reflects "strong residential tax base growth and increasingly strong fund balances."

The report also cited "a modest, but significant growth in health care facilities catering to a growing retiree population, consistently strong financial performance and management continuity, and low debt levels due to self-supporting utilities and a very manageable capital improvement plan."

Standard & Poor's has assigned the "AA" rating to the county's $32.76 million general obligation bonds series 2003, due Oct. 15, 2032. According to the report, the outlook on the bonds, scheduled to sell Jan. 2, is "stable."

John Sugden, a Standard & Poor's credit analyst, predicted the county "will maintain strong financial performance and manageable debt levels."

The total market value countywide for property has increased 41percent over the past five years, reaching $15.5 billion, or $98,691 per capita in 2002, according to the S&P report. Also highlighted was the diversity of the county's tax base, with the 10 leading taxpayers accounting for only 4.9 percent of total assessed value.

The county's financial performance was termed "consistently solid" with surpluses over the past five years and an expected $5.2 million surplus for fiscal 2002.

Moody's has also rated the county's debt at AA, according to Stickels.

Tom Beckett, an analyst with Fairmont Capital Advisors, told council that no one in his office has ever seen an S&P rating jump two grades in one year. Stickels said this is the first time the county has received the AA rating from two agencies. He said the new rating could save the county up to $2 million on borrowing for county sewer projects, starting next month.

And as a stocking stuffer for the county, economic director Steve Masten announced at Tuesday's meeting that Sussex has been ranked third in the nation for entrepreneurship in a rural area.


Sheriff Proposes Fee Ordinances

Citing the need to recoup the cost of searching for deeds of property bought at sheriff's sales, Sussex County Sheriff Robert Reed has proposed charging purchasers $200.

According to the proposed ordinance, the county sheriff is required by law to prepare a deed for the purchaser of land sold at sheriff's sale. Often, no deed is presented, or those that are presented are so inaccurate the property can't legally be considered transfered.

Reed said this results in a break in the chain of title, leading to future problems when the property is transfered again, as well as record-keeping problems for the sheriff.

The fee Reed is proposing would be refunded if the purchaser presents a legal deed to the sheriff within a specified period of time. This, according to the ordinance, will help assure that deeds are prepared and recorded within a reasonable period of time.

Reed said some buyers don't have deeds prepared in an attempt to avoid paying taxes on the property. "There are all kinds of games people play, and this is just one way of trying to alleviate problems," he said. Often, his staff is forced to "go back and look in boxes of old records of sheriff's sales for deed information. "It creates a lot of work for us," he said.

Reed also proposed an ordinance that would put in writing fees his office already charges to help defray the costs of sheriff's sales. The fees were the subject of a recent legal challenge because they are not found in the county code, Reed said.

The county charges a $250 deposit to defray the costs of advertising and selling personal property, and $500 for real estate sales. The fees are refundable as long as the proceeds of the sales exceed the sheriff's department's costs.


Letters Cause a Stir

Letters from a state Representative-elect, some coastal mayors and a state Senator drew some interesting comments from council members on Tuesday.

Despite much grumbling from County Administrator Robert L. Stickels and council members that they didn't think a letter from state Rep.-elect Joseph Booth, R-Georgetown, should be brought to light, council member George Cole opened a brief discussion on the letter, in which Booth suggests the county should consider expanding the Planning and Zoning Commission from five members to seven or nine members.

Dukes replied that Booth "ought to have his first meeting in Dover before he tries to micromanage us."

Booth said in the letter, according to Cole, that he had heard the suggestion of expanding the planning commission from residents during his campaign.

Cole then attempted to start a discussion on the makeup of the planning commission, pointing out that he is the only council member whose district currently has no representation on the commission. He didn't get much sympathy from other council members.

Dukes brought up a letter from the mayors of the Association of Coastal Towns to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner regarding the county's 2002 update to its Comprehensive Land Use Plan.

The letter, similar to another letter from A.C.T. to county council regarding the land use plan, bore the names of the nine mayors of the towns in A.C.T.

Dukes said mayors from Henlopen Acres, Dewey Beach and Rehoboth Beach have distanced themselves from the letter to Minner. That letter, written by Fenwick Island Town Council Vice President Harry Haon to Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, asked Minner not to certify the county's recently adopted land use plan.

"The three mayors said they have not seen it," Dukes said of Haon's letter. Council member Vance Phillips commented that it appears the Association of Coastal Towns, which Haon represented at numerous hearings on the land use plan, "is out doing this unilaterally, without the members' knowledge."

Council member George Cole urged the council, however, to get all the facts before coming to a conclusion about Haon's letter.

The council also discussed a letter from state Sen. George H. Bunting Jr., D-Bethany Beach, in which he addressed the impact the state hiring freeze is having on the state Fire Marshal's office. Bunting said the freeze has resulted in two fire marshal positions, one secretary and one planning coordinator's position, remaining open due to vacancies.

County Administrator Robert Stickels said "it doesn't make good business sense" for the county to help fund those positions. He said the fire marshal' office should be allowed to fill the positions, since it operated in the black last year. He said the office generated $2.1 million in income and cost $1.7 million to run. If there are financial problems within the office, Stickels said it appears its own revenue "isn't staying there to support their needs."


In Other Business ...
  • Tuesday's meeting was the final meeting of the year for county council. Council will take off Tuesday, Dec. 24, and Tuesday, Dec. 31, for the Christmas and New Year's holidays. Council's next meeting will be Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2003. Council typically reorganizes for the coming year at that meeting. Among other items, council chooses a new president and vice president and establishes its meeting schedule for the year.

  • Council will have to hire a new solicitor with the resignation of long-time solicitor Eugene Bayard of the law firm Wilson, Halbrook & Bayard before the start of the Tuesday, Dec. 17 meeting. Dennis Schrader, also of Wilson, Halbrook & Bayard, took over for Bayard for the Dec. 17 meeting but said he would also be resigning as the Planning & Zoning Commission's attorney at the commission's Dec. 19 meeting.

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