Kent County tightens already thrifty budget outlook

DOVER — Since the Great Recession more than a decade ago, Kent County government has operated frugally and responsibly, officials say.

Following the staggering downturn, Levy Court instituted cost containment measures to limit expenses in relationship to revenue streams, according to leadership.

Jody Sweeney

“That remains in our culture today,” County Administrator Michael Petit de Mange conveyed last week.

Commissioner Jody Sweeney concurred, saying operating expenses were pared by more than 25% after an evaluation 10 years ago.

“Over those years, the county administrator and his directors have pushed to keep those costs down, so there is not much fat to trim from the operational budget,” he said.

As economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic worsens, however, creating even more thrifty ways to avoid financial calamity is a growing challenge.

“Levy Court always takes a very conservative position when spending taxpayer money but this time we are looking at the budget and using very sharp pencils,” Commissioner Terry Pepper said.

Added Mr. Pepper, “Levy Court has been very reluctant to reach into county reserves but that may not be an option this budget cycle.”

And the great unknown is just how long and how destructive COVID-19 proves to be. There’s no good gauge of what resources will be available for Kent County decision-makers to utilize for the citizenry.

A public budget hearing is scheduled for May 26 — the pending general fund for Fiscal Year 2021 is around $32.2 million, which is roughly the same as last year. Budget evaluations and possible adjustments will be made throughout the year, officials said.

For now, there are already far fewer dollars to work with — the county received roughly $572,000 less revenue combined in March and April compared to the same two months in 2019.

Mr. Sweeney said that previously, just under 30% of county revenue has been generated from new home permits, add-ons, inspections and real estate transfers. Already, banks have slowed their part in the processes, he said.

“The county continues to do business and processing permits, but we know there is a slowdown coming in that area,” said Mr. Sweeney.

For March and April, at least, realty transfers and inspection fees held up pretty well. Mr. Petit de Mange attributed some of that to property settlements previously under contract and developer home starts.

From March 1 to April 15, realty transfer taxes declined about 14% from 2019, though a strong several weeks afterward pulled them back up. Inspections dropped about 20% but saw a similar rebound, Mr. Petit de Mange said.

Part of the revenue lost was about $62,000 the past two months as recreational sports programs were cut this spring.

Sheriff sale fees fell 40% from March 1 to April 15 as three events were canceled. Some gatherings may draw a crowd of more than 100, and Mr. Petit de Mange said social distancing and crowd limitations in the age of coronavirus stopped them. Another one is scheduled to be canceled too, he said, though there’s discussion to possibly conduct some business online or by drive-through.

Sheriff’s service process fees dropped 66%, along with Levy Court’s stock market investments earning dividends and interest.

Capital projects shelved

Capital project delays are inevitable and only “mission critical” public safety and security items are assured to be spared. An approximately $2 million capital budget previously discussed has dropped to around $1.4 million now, Mr. Petit de Mange said.

Still budgeted is $577,500 for cardiac units, $350,000 to buy paging equipment, an $85,000 emergency generator purchase, $71,000 to acquire a paramedic vehicle and $150,000 for IT department projects.

Said Mr. Pepper, “We would like to hire additional paramedics to man the new paramedic station on the west side of Dover 24/7, but we’ll have to wait and open manning it 12 hours per day.”

Among the cuts include funding for an eventual information technology software overhaul, historic building fixes and maintenance, and community services in parks and recreations, including irrigation of ballfields, officials said. Vehicle purchases are on hold and investment in park pavilions is postponed.

“We will have to delay those that are needs of the county, not wants,” Mr. Sweeney said.

Personnel-wise, several action requests by department heads have been denied or put on hold, including new positions or upgrading existing ones, Mr. Petit de Mange said. The county has 303 authorized job slots, and 280 are currently filled.

Possible 2% step increases in employee pay are likely delayed until at least December, along with a 1% cost of living adjustment, the county administrator said.

There’s more than $264,800 tied to step increases and $125,800 in cost of living adjustments.

A mid-fiscal year evaluation in December will surely adjust projections and further determine what is an isn’t available.

“There are still unknowns regarding how soon economic activity resumes and what the fallout will be for businesses and affected employees,” Commissioner Jeff Hall said.

Additionally, Mr. Hall described the budget approach as “conservative” and funds will be affected by state revenues and the General Assembly’s response to its own fiscal situation.

Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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