Sussex County budget proposal takes cautious approach

GEORGETOWN — Sussex County’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 differs substantially from its predecessors, reflecting a cautious, conservative approach in times of uncertainty.

“This is definitely a different budget entering an unknown time,” said Sussex County Finance Director Gina Jennings. “We needed to get creative and we needed to decide; what do we do and how do we react? What I presented … is a baseline budget. There are no new initiatives, no large projects. This is what the departments said they could do to turn the lights on.”

Sussex County government will trim departmental spending, forgo major capital projects and cap its grants programs, but keep all services intact and positions funded under an austere budget plan for the year ahead as Delaware and the rest of the nation continue to wrestle with the effects of the COVID-19 emergency.

During a Tuesday teleconference meeting of Sussex County Council, county officials unveiled the proposed $157.8 million budget for FY21 to fund various local services, such as 911 dispatch, paramedics and wastewater as well as already planned projects, including a consolidated public safety complex.

The proposed spending plan calls for no new programs or projects, and no increases in taxes or general fund fees, despite projected income dips, particularly among real estate-related revenues.

The overall proposed budget – down 15 percent from the current year’s $185.8 million budget – is designed with revenues projected to be down to 65 percent to 85 percent of their FY20 levels.

In response, spending is reduced or delayed in many areas until the financial aftermath of the health crisis becomes clearer.

“To be blunt, these are different times, and this is a different budget, different than anything we have seen in recent memory, if ever,” said Sussex County Administrator Todd F. Lawson, who presented to county council the proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“It keeps spending to an absolute minimum and doesn’t include any new major capital projects or purchases. But I’m proud to say it keeps our employees working and our operations funded so we can continue to deliver the services our public depends on each and every day.”

Highlights in the proposed FY21 budget include:

• $1 million to cover engineering costs of a consolidated public safety complex that would expand the Emergency Operations Center to accommodate the county’s Emergency Medical Services’ administrative offices and training facilities;

• Maintained funding, at $3.4 million, for the county’s contract with the state of Delaware for the 22 supplemental state police troopers assigned to Sussex County;

• A $750,000 allocation to continue efforts to expand broadband internet in rural areas;

• $1.7 million to preserve open space and farmland that could otherwise be developed;

• Funding for 12 positions to meet demand in the Emergency Medical Services, Emergency Operations Center and county engineering departments, with the bulk of those eight going to EOC as the center-absorbed functions of the Seaford 911 facility in 2019 and shifts to a call taker/dispatch model later this year;

• No change in current property tax rates or sewer service charges, and only a minor increase, $15 annually, in service charges for water customers.

“The county will continue to live by a responsible, financial philosophy while monitoring the market trends,” said Mr. Lawson. “We will not use savings to support the operations of the general fund budget.”

If adopted as presented, Sussex County’s property tax rate will remain at 44.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, marking the 31st consecutive year with no county tax increase.

The proposed budget has been drafted as a baseline spending plan that can be modified in the new fiscal year as quarterly revenue outlooks yield more information, Ms. Jennings said. If revenues derived from realty transfer tax, building permits, building inspections and through document filings in the Recorder of Deeds Office exceed a given quarter’s budget by at least $1 million, numerous departmental expenses, purchases and projects/initiatives could be restored through prioritized budget amendments.

Sussex Council President Michael H. Vincent praised the budget team, including Mr. Lawson, Ms. Jennings and Deputy Finance Director Kathy L. Roth, for crafting a plan amid difficult and uncertain economic circumstances.

“This budget does what we need it to do, which is to keep the lights on and government running,” Mr. Vincent said. “That, along with the hard work of our dedicated staff, will get it us through these uncertain times.”

Mr. Lawson offered special kudos to Ms. Jennings and Ms. Roth, noting “this year presents some unique and significant challenges, and even so they have developed a budget which reflects the uncertainty of these times yet maintains the county’s operations.”

County council will hold a public hearing on the proposal during its 10 a.m. meeting Tuesday, June 23. The hearing may be limited to a virtual session with public comment submitted via telephone or in advance by emailing budget@sussexcountyde.gov.

The county directs the public to consult the county council’s June 23 agenda, when posted, for further guidance.

By law, council must adopt a budget by June 30.

To view a copy of the proposed budget, including the accompanying presentation, visit www.sussexcountyde.gov/county-budget.


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 1 guidance

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