County cuts tax giveback after one year

Sussex County Council members struck a $2.2 million tax rebate from the coming year’s $135.1 million budget at the June 14 council meeting. Last year, only Council Member George Cole (4th District) wanted to chop the tax rebate — and, like last year, he said it amounted to little more than “a large pizza and a couple of sodas” per citizen.

This year, only Council Member Vance Phillips (5th District) opposed it.

Greenwood resident Dan Kramer delivered his trademark rebuke (he averages one per meeting), suggesting council had decided they knew how to spend the peoples’ money better than the people did.

However, considering the fact that he asked the council to give back the entire “revenues exceeded expenditures” budget last year, this year’s fight for just the tax rebate seemed mild by comparison.

Apparently, the balances tipped toward programs in 2005, for all three Democrats.

Council Member Dale Dukes stole Cole’s thunder this time, whereas last year he told Cole, “Yes, on programs that would have been very beneficial. However, the county residents paid it in to begin with and it’s their money.”

This year, Dukes spoke of vision for the future, especially regarding sewer capacity in the western county. “I know Seaford’s at capacity, I know Laurel’s at capacity,” he said. “I don’t know what Delmar and Bridgeville are, but I’m sure that with the growth that’s coming on that side of the county, I think it’s time that Sussex County and this council started looking at doing something to create a position.”

He suggested a look at a regional sewer study for the west side, and a possible move from collection and treatment to treatment only.

Cole went next, reiterating the position he’d taken in 2004. “I’m not ready to say, ‘here’s where it’s going to go,’ but I agree with the part that we should not be giving a tax credit this year,” Cole said.

“I’d like to rescind my suggestion, Mr. Cole, and agree with you that, okay, we’ll put it on at a later date, and just not include that ($2.2 million) in the budget,” Dukes responded. He anticipated some last-minute petitioners might appear as council freed up the money, and they would need to review those requests alongside council members’ recommendations, in coming weeks.

Cole suggested more people were concerned with quality of life issues than oppressive taxation, but he hinted at perhaps more support for affordable housing initiatives, rather than nailing the money down for west side sewer.

Phillips chafed. “To some politicians, a tax is like alcohol to a drunk — just can’t give it up,” he said.

“I think it’s more than appropriate to give a very small portion of this surplus back to the people who pay the taxes in this county,” Phillips continued. He noted contingency funds — “which in some people’s minds, that’s what some call ‘slush funds,” he added — and property acquisition funds that could be divvied up instead.

In addition, he reminded everyone that sewer rates were going up slightly, so in effect, the tax rebate would just balance those rate increases.

Dukes called Phillips’ comments somewhat unfair, since the county was already providing $5.6 million in subsidies to individual sewer districts.

Council Member Lynn Rogers said he hadn’t heard a lot of applause in the wake of last year’s tax rebate, and suggested people were more concerned about infrastructure and affordable housing.

He noted movement in that direction over the previous year, in hiring Project Manager Adi Maneckshaw (engineering), and initiating sewer studies in the north coastal and Dagsboro-Frankford areas, in an effort to avoid “spot sewering” down the road.

Regarding the affordable housing, Rogers said it was a shame that people who were born and raised in the coastal part of the county were being priced out of the market. “And the sad thing is, the ones who can’t afford to buy, or don’t want to, can no longer afford to rent,” he said.

Rogers expected the situation would only get worse as time went on.

Council President Finley Jones sided with Phillips. “I think these projects can be funded without impacting the tax cut,” he said. However, theirs was the minority view, and the proposed rebate diffused back into the fiscal 2006 budget on a 3-2 vote.

Jones introduced three additional amendments — (1) higher wages for the lowest-paid county employees, (2) a 2-percent cost of living wage increase for county employees six months earlier than proposed and (3) an overall cost of living wage increase to 5 percent, from the proposed 4.5 percent.

Council reached unanimous consent on the first, which brought 18 employees making less than $20,000 up to that mark, but Dukes opposed the second (4-1 vote). While the first amendment added just $11,000 to the budget — however, by implementing the entire 4.5 percent raise in July, rather than splitting it up between July and January 2006, the county incurred another $203,000 in expenses.

Jones decided he’d pushed hard enough, and dropped the third amendment.

Other late amendments included an additional $56,000 in grants for affordable housing projects, split between West Rehoboth and Milford, and a few minor changes to the council members’ individual community improvement grant funds.

Jones added $2,400 for Operation Warmth at Georgetown Elementary, which will go toward the purchase of 200 coats for children at need.

Cole added $2,500 for a Rehoboth Beach Chamber of Commerce “Destination Center,” and an additional $5,000 for the West Rehoboth Community Land Trust (on of housing projects mentioned above). He also doubled Dukes’ grant to the AGAPE Senior Center (Oak Orchard), making it $3,000 total.

Phillips doubled up on Dukes’ grant to the Laurel Library, making it $10,000 in all. Rogers directed another $2,500 toward the Prime Hook Wildlife Refuge, and another $1,000 to Casa San Francisco (emergency shelter in Milton).

Council passed the fiscal 2006 budget, as amended above, by a 4-1 vote, over Phillips’ continued objection to the removal of the tax rebate.

Again, the total figure was $135.2 million, with $53.3 million in general fund expenditures, which includes the $10.2 million “Rainy Day” contingency fund and a big $17.5 million public safety budget.

Elsewhere, there’s more than $14.3 million in a capital improvement fund, more than $38.4 million set aside for new capital projects, and nearly $27.7 million for the sewer and water districts.

A few local property owners will see reduced water and sewer front footage fees, due to a new 100-foot max cap (a further reduction from last year’s 125-foot cap. Ocean View and Cedar Neck district residents saw the greatest relief, with fees lowered at 260 properties.

In the Bethany Beach district, front footage fees dropped at 76 properties, in Fenwick Island, 55, in Holt’s Landing, 58, in Dagsboro/Frankford, 53, in South Bethany, 43 and in North Bethany, 37.

However, average water and wastewater bills increased in all of those districts, by a few percentage points (less than five), and connection charges increased by approximately 5 percent as well.

• County Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) turned out in force, to recognize county contributions to the new Emergency Operations Center (EOC) construction project ($1,200,000) and big paramedic and ambulance budgets. The county has created a new mobile paramedic unit this year, which should be deployed in the eastern county during the summer and return westward in the off-season.

• Police chiefs from the local municipalities did likewise, to express their thanks for the county’s new cost-sharing program — each department received a $25,000 grant for use in capital improvements.

• Locally, the county budgeted $300,000 for two library expansion projects, one of them being the South Coastal Library.

• Cole supported Bethany Beach and Ocean View parks & rec departments, the Millville Town Hall project and the Cedar Neck CHEER Center ($5,000 each).

• Phillips supported Fenwick Island lifeguards ($13,000), the Town of Selbyville ($5,000) and the Indian River School District HOSTS program ($4,000).

• Cole and Phillips also split a $5,000 grant, to the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce.