Sussex County's housing-related revenue is expected to increase 20 percent this fiscal year, but county officials have proposed holding the line on spending slightly less than during the last fiscal year.
“We are very optimistic that the local economy is making its way back, based on some very strong indicators from the housing sector. But we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, so as a result, the county continues to budget cautiously,” said County Administrator Todd Lawson.
On May 20, county officials unveiled a proposed $117.3 million budget, an overall plan that is $400,000 less, or nearly .3 percent, from the current year’s $117.7 million budget.
The decrease is mostly the result of reducing expenses as major projects – including the new Greenwood library and the first phase of the Sussex County airport runway extension – were paid for and completed in the current budget year.
The proposed general operating fund budget of nearly $52 million is a 3.6 percent increase from the previous budget.
The proposed budget keeps keeps the county’s property tax rate at 44.5 cents per $100 of assessed value for the 25th consecutive year. The average county tax bill for a single-family home remains around $100 annually, not including school district taxes.
Realty transfer taxes will continue to be the county’s largest source of income, with $16 million budgeted in fiscal 2015, though the final collected amount could run higher as it did in fiscal 2014. Any revenue collected over that $16 million figure will be deposited directly into capital for future projects. The county is anticipating collecting nearly $21 million in transfer taxes this current year, an increase of nearly $4 million from fiscal year 2013.
Finance Director Gina Jennings, Deputy Finance Director Kathy Roth and Lawson make up the county's budget committee.
The public can comment in person on that date or submit comments through the web at firstname.lastname@example.org. By law, council must adopt a budget by June 30.
A copy of the proposed fiscal year 2015 budget, as well as the accompanying budget presentation, can be downloaded from sussexcountyde.gov/county-budget.
Residents will see increases in sewer connection and service fees. Following an effort over the past few years to establish consistent pricing for public wastewater service, the county will begin phasing in a unified, one-time sewer connection fee for new users. Meantime, quarterly sewer service rates for existing and new customers – the county currently serves approximately 60,000 users – will increase by $8 in most cases; one district, Long Neck, will increase by $15.
Connection fees for new users will increase an average of 8 percent, ranging from $4,100 to $8,000, depending on the sewer district.
While overall spending is down slightly, the general fund portion of the budget is expected to rise by 3.6 percent, or $1.8 million. That is due in part to an expected surplus later this year, as well as an expected increase in investment income of $230,000, new assessments from new construction of $214,000 and a continued rise in building-inspection fees.
The general fund portion of the budget pays for day-to-day operations and services offered by county government.
Included in the budget is a recommendation for five new full-time and six part-time employees to fill positions in building code, assessment and technology. Even with the new staff, the county's overall staffing is down 10 percent since 2009.
“The county continues to operate with fewer staff than before the housing crisis that began in 2008. While revenues the past couple of years have begun to move upward, the county understands the past has a way of repeating itself,” Jennings said. “We want to make sure the budget is sustainable if revenues fall back to recession levels.”
Budget highlights include:
$2 million for 44 additional Delaware State Police troopers
$4.6 million for libraries, including three county and 11 independent libraries
$3.4 million to volunteer fire and ambulance services
42 percent – or 54 cents of every tax dollar – of general fund expenses is for public safety
A 2 percent cost of living raise for all employees
$230,000 to continue the county’s efforts to digitize records, including a planned shift from paper to e-records for planning and zoning application cases and maps for online public inspection
$2.25 million for 40 percent of the costs of an EOC mobile command unit and construction of two paramedic stations
$7.1 million for governmental capital projects including $2.6 million for airport improvements
$14 million for water and sewer capital projects including $3.7 million for pump stations and connection work