Sussex County officials say there is a budget surplus again this year, and they may choose to return fiscal year 2012 surplus funds to taxpayers in a different way than in fiscal 2011.
At its Jan. 22 meeting, Sussex County Council discussed three possible options to spend $525,000 of an $854,000 surplus: funding for independent libraries, housing rehabilitation and to address drainage issues that continue to plague sections of the county. About $320,000 has already been committed by county officials to pay for four additional Delaware State Police troopers.
With a $3.8 million surplus in fiscal 2011, council returned $1 million to taxpayers in the form of a property tax rebate and placed $2 million in the county employee's pension fund.
“We're seeing some small increases and glimmers of growth, particularly in realty transfer tax and building permits, but overall the economy is relatively flat,” said Sussex County Finance Director Susan Webb, who presented her final audit report before retiring this spring. “I would say the local economy is holding its own, and county government's finances are solid.”
While revenue was over budget by more than $1.4 million, it was offset by declining interest income, an additional pension contribution of $2 million and nearly $1 million in a delayed state paramedic grant, Webb said. Realty transfer tax revenue was $14.2 million, up $28,000 from the previous year, but was $712,000 over the amount budgeted in fiscal 2012. Sheriff's Office revenue was $1.9 million over budget at $4.7 million due to collections from foreclosures.
What to do with surplus
Council President Mike Vincent, R-Seaford, was first to speak out about using surplus funds for libraries and housing. Councilman George Cole, R-Ocean View, then mentioned council should also consider funds to address drainage issues by raising the county's annual allocation to Sussex County Conservation District of Delaware.
Councilman Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, said he needed time to think about Cole's suggestion. “They do some things good and some things bad,” he said. Wilson is the county's representative on the conservation district board.
“The stormwater programs are foolishness,” he said. “There are a lot of places we can make improvements. If we just want to get rid of the money, we should give it back to the taxpayers.”
“Giving back to the public is always a good decision,” said Councilman Vance Phillips, R-Laurel. It was Phillips who pushed the refund to county taxpayers in fiscal 2011.
Phillips said he was not against the allocation of funds to support libraries and housing rehabilitation. But, he said, if council was serious about more funds for the conservation district, the allocation should not be done the way the federal government does it with one-time money and no follow-up. “We should not leave them hanging. Would it be better if we put the money in our operating budget for them?” he asked.
“The money should come with a lot of strings attached,” Wilson added.
Councilwoman Joan Deaver, D-Rehoboth Beach, said she would support more funding for drainage issues because many of the worst areas are in her district.
County staff will present council with options within a month.
Other fiscal year 2012 audit highlights are as follows:
• $1.4 million spent on county airport improvements and $275,000 on renovations to its Milton library and design for a new Greenwood library.
• $78 million spent for general operations and $16 million spent for capital improvements.
• Three new sewer districts went on line with more than 2,000 users.
• The county's trust fund is more than $53 million and the post-retirement benefit trust fund is more than $23 million for a total more than $76 million.
• Sussex County government employed 483 people in fiscal 2012, down from a high of 539 employees in fiscal 2007.
• Webb said federal grants and loans for emergency management, housing rehabilitation, work at the county's airport and sewer projects of more than $31 million is the highest amount ever received by the county. The county received $18 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; $2.1 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; $907,000 from the U.S. Department of Transportation; $8.9 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; $208,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy; and $450,000 from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The audit is posted on the county's website at sussexcountyde.gov.
Boom years were great ones for Sussex
Since 1978, Sussex County government has finished the fiscal year with eight deficits over the 34-year period. Reflecting the economic times, the county was hit with drastic reductions in building-related revenue with deficits of $1.9 million in 2009, $3.3 million in 2008 and $2.6 million in 2007. The county rebounded with cost-cutting measures to post a $618,000 surplus in 2010.
The county also reaped the benefits when the building industry was booming. From 2002 to 2006, the county posted total surpluses of nearly $53 million with highs of $12.5 million in 2003 and $11.8 million in 2004. The county finished fiscal years 1991 through 2006 with surpluses.
SUSSEX FACTS AND FIGURES
(All are fiscal years.)
Building permits issued – 2012: 6,959; 2011: 6,658. High of 11,299 in 2006.
911 calls – 2012: 108,301; 2011: 105,776.
Library circulation – 2012: 1.4 million; 2011: 1.1 million.
Sewer customers – 2012: 62,431; 2011: 60,167.
Number of airport landings – 2012: 18,000; 2011: 17,500. High of 20,000 in 2008.
Number of jobs in county industrial park: 2012: 881; 2011: 961. High of 1,048 in 2008.
Population – 2012: 205,800; 2011: 200,771.
Unemployment rate – 2012: 5.9 percent; 2011: 7.2 percent. Low of 2.7 percent in 2003; high of 7.9 percent in 2010.
Top jobs in 2012 – Retail trade, 16.6 percent; manufacturing, 16.1 percent; health care, 15.5 percent; government, 12.6 percent; food services, accommodations, 11.3 percent; construction, 5.3 percent.