Sussex County’s FY2021 budget reflects the world of uncertainly

GEORGETOWN — Sussex County government officials say they have in place a budget for Fiscal Year 2021 — an ultra-conservative spending plan that reflects the economic uncertainty of the coronavirus crisis but still keeps all core services intact.

Following a June 23 public hearing that drew one speaker via teleconference, county council gave its unanimous stamp of approval to the $157.8 million FY2021 budget that begins July 1.

As the county anticipates in the coming months a drop in income, most notably in the real-estate-related revenues, county leaders trimmed departmental spending, put off new major capital projects and capped the county’s grants programs.

The overall budget, which marks a 15-percent reduction from FY2020, is designed with revenues projected to be down to 65 percent to 85 percent of their FY 2020 levels, reflecting the financial downturn caused by the global pandemic.

“To say this is a bare-bones budget is an understatement. The COVID-19 crisis forced the county, just as it did the state and federal governments, to re-evaluate funding and spending priorities, and plan accordingly,” Sussex County Administrator Todd F. Lawson said. “This budget reflects the new realities in a post-pandemic world.

“But there is reason to be optimistic,” Mr. Lawson added. “If the pandemic continues to level off or subside through the summer and into the fall, and revenues begin to pick up again as businesses and construction resume, then we can supplement this budget to fund projects and $157.8 million budget for Fiscal 2021 initiatives later in the year. This budget allows the county to take a wait-and-see approach, all while maintaining our day-to-day services the public depend on.”

On the revenue front, the FY2021 budget is supported by a mix of income streams, including property taxes, realty transfer taxes, sewer service fees, building permit fees and document recording fees. The revenue funds numerous local services, including EMS paramedics and 911 dispatchers, public wastewater treatment, building inspection, and public libraries, among other services.

Sussex Council President Michael H. Vincent said while the budget may represent a changed economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it nonetheless represents the county’s long-standing tradition of conservative financial management.

“Whether good times or not so good times, Sussex County taxpayers can always count on their money being used prudently and wisely,” Mr. Vincent said. “This budget is surely no different.”

Sussex County Finance Director Gina Jennings said the budget was designed as a baseline spending plan that can be modified in the new fiscal year as quarterly revenue outlooks yield more information. If revenues derived from realty transfer tax, permits, building inspections, and through document filings in the Sussex County Recorder of Deeds office exceed a given quarter’s budget by at least $1 million, numerous departmental expenses, purchases, and projects/initiatives can be restored through prioritized budget amendments.

As things are beginning to reopen, Ms. Jennings pointed to promising signs regarding realty transfer tax, one of the largest revenue generators. Initial projected RTT revenue in FY2020 was $35.7 million. The FY2021 budget conservatively projects 65-percent of that, at $22.5 million.

“This is very encouraging to see that realty transfer tax will still surpass FY2019 even with the decline we saw in May,” said Ms. Jennings.

Included in the budget is a 1.5-percent COLA (cost of living adjustment), plus a merit incentive.

“Employees will receive 1.4-percent merit for a positive performance review,” Ms. Jennings said.

Adopted FY21 budget highlights:

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

• maintains 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;

• allocates $750,000 to continue broadband internet expansion in rural areas;

• devotes $1.7 million to preserve open space and farmland;

• keeps sewer service changes unchanged.

While the world has changed dramatically during COVID-19, what remains unchanged is the county tax rate, which will remain at 44.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, marking the 31st consecutive year with no county tax increase.

By law, Sussex County must adopt a balanced budget by June 30 each year.

Copies of the FY2021 budget, as well as the accompanying budget presentation, can be downloaded from the county’s website at www.sussexcountyde.gov/county-budget.