South Bethany talks budget — meets again March 13

South Bethany may have a budget shortfall of about $1,500 in its proposed 2016-fiscal-year budget, “but we know where to find it,” said Town Council Treasurer Tim Saxton.

On Feb. 26, he presented to the council a “fully loaded” draft budget, which included savings, new expenses and a 4.1 percent pay increase for employees.

The council began their meeting with a budget shortfall of about $5,149, which decreased with several changes and $2,000 from Sussex County’s $10,000 Economic Development & Infrastructure Grant to the Town.

County grant to pay for town hall upgrades

Mayor Pat Voveris and Councilwoman Sue Callaway said they didn’t want to just “pay a bill” with the grant money, insisting that it was intended for projects the Town couldn’t have done otherwise. But the council approved new projects that will be paid for with the rest of that grant.

The next $4,500 of the grant will buy town hall’s audio upgrade. Councilmembers had noted how hard it is to hear and participate by remote access when they call in to meetings. The upgrade would include phones, wiring and other equipment.

Another $2,000 from the grant will buy preliminary plans for the expansion of town hall.

“It was free money to get the plans done. It’s up to you if and when you want to get it done,” Town Manager Mel Cusick said. “We’ve got so many meetings now — we’re juggling.”

He described the auditor and Town committees having to share the council chambers. New space could include a small conference room, offices, storage, bathrooms or more.

With the plans, the town council can decide whether to sock away money for future expansions.

While Voveris said she admired the work people originally put into designing town hall, she said they couldn’t have foreseen the building hosting so many committees and town events.

“I’m all for it,” Caputo said. “I think it’s great that this facility is used by the community so much.”

The final $1,500 of the grant will be used for a full Town Code review.

Voveris suggested the process involve the University of Delaware, which would do an “initial review” of Town laws and present information on any glaring problems, and their observations and recommendations. First, the UD group will submit a proposal from their review team. The council may accept it, or it may decide to use another review service.

Collectively the council members said they didn’t want to start a lighting project on Canal Drive (which Callaway said is pitch black at night, even in popular walking areas) before they finished the current Ocean Drive project. (The grant will cover the $2,000 that the council had already set aside in the proposed budget.)

Meanwhile, the council will further investigate whether the electric company will replace Cat Hill-area lamps for free.

Transfer tax numbers remain fluid

Going forward in the budget process, the council will continue discussing big-picture items, such as savings and long-term expenses. They also reviewed individual budget items.

The council debated how much income to expect from transfer taxes, with $305,000 proposed in the draft budget.

Historically, numbers for transfer tax revenue have been all over the place, Saxton said. This year’s transfer tax income has already hit $400,000, when $250,000 was budgeted. But that may be due to a considerable number of sales on Ocean Drive, which may not necessarily be repeated this fiscal year.

“We had a 72 percent increase in single-family homes sold in South Bethany,” Callaway said she had heard from a local Realtor, with a 21 percent price rise in median price ($650,000) and a top price of $2.75 million.

Temporary personnel is a new line item in the Town’s budget ($5,500), intended to ensure there is adequate coverage when Town employees go on vacation. Saxton said he was concerned that staff are getting pulled away from their daily jobs to cover other tasks.

The hourly rate is on par with that in the Town of Rehoboth Beach, about $10.50 or $11, Cusick said.

The council decided to plan on a lower figure for magistrate fines ($45,000) because in past years they have come to that amount when much more was budgeted.

Caputo asked if $25,000 would be enough for the Town’s legal fees, since “it only takes one thing” for costs to skyrocket. But Cusick said insurance will kick in should that happen, and fees may be spread over multiple years.

The council approved a 4.1 percent payroll increase, including the regular 2.5 percent step increase, plus a 1.6 percent cost-of-living adjustment.)

“It sends an important message to employees that we appreciate them,” Callaway said. “My street was plowed at 7 a.m. I think we have come to accept that” level of service,” she added.

South Bethany had no COLA increase last year, Voveris said. The Delaware State budget proposal has no COLA increase this year, Cusick noted.

There is a $2,900 increase in the proposed budget for keeping a police psychiatrist on retainer, which is a standard in the area, Police Chief Troy Crowson said.

The water quality budget includes $1,000 for community education and $5,300 for water testing with the University Maryland. (The previous lab cost less but was slow in returning results.)

Saxton requested a philosophical discussion on the Town’s recreational events. He said he was fine with the recently created Realtor luncheon, boat parade and movie nights, as events that promote the town, encourage visitors or drive revenue.

However, he questioned the Town’s Polar Bear Plunge team, which endorses one specific charity and had a decrease in attendance this year.

But Callaway quickly addressed his concerns by telling the story of a new homeowner who was so excited to join the plunge team that she invited a bunch of guests for the weekend. It also gave the woman an overall “good feeling” about her new town, Callaway said.

The council upped the budget to include $3,000 for two movie nights, after a very successful “Frozen” showing last summer.

The council limited the Town’s Boat Parade budget to $360, eliminating a proposed $300 for an awards ceremony. Some people questioned the Town’s paying even that much for laminated numbers, prizes and mementos.

“It’s fun!” Callaway said, and very inexpensive.

Budget discussions will continue at the following meetings:

• Budget & Finance Committee on Friday, March 6, at 3 p.m.

• A public meeting on the 2016-fiscal-year draft budget on Friday, March 13, at 6 p.m.

• The town council’s regular meeting on Friday, March 13, at 7 p.m.