Fenwick Island brainstorms on budget

The earliest stages of drafting Fenwick Island’s budget for the 2005-2006 fiscal year began Saturday, April 2, with a workshop aimed at determining the town’s overall needs. The process should be approximately 30 days in length, targeting adoption of the budget in June.

Led by Council Member Audrey Serio and the town’s fiscal management consultant, Gary Esposito, the workshop first presented the previous year’s budget for comparison, identifying areas of anticipated surplus and shortfall.

Esposito noted that there had been some areas of the budget where actual expenses had been overbudgeted, meaning funds were allocated but turned out not to be needed.
That was not the case for the town’s expenditures on gasoline, however. With prices at the pump steadily rising over the winter and through the spring (and expected to continue to rise), costs for fuel exceeded expectations and will have to be liberally budgeted for the coming fiscal year.

Town Council Member and Public Safety Commissioner Theo Brans said he expected the town’s police department to show a surplus for the year.

Esposito also noted that the town’s lucrative realty transfer tax is generally a significant part of its budget — functionally budgeted at this time each year to ensure the entirety of the budget is funded.

On that front, Esposito also announced his plan to invest the $300,000 in funds remaining from the town’s transfer tax in two certificates of deposit. Those CDs will have a term of two or three years each and, thanks to an agreement with the issuing bank, provide the town with 1/2 percent above the current interest rate.

Esposito also noted that he had secured a one-time step-up ability to further increase the interest rate on the CDs during their term.

He pointed out that the $300,000 was initially intended to fund long-term projects completed over a several-year period, including the town’s costs for the planned median beautification project. That project came in at a bid of approximately half what had been expected.

Esposito further noted that the town’s savings account balance can be expected to drop over the course of the coming months as some of the town’s major expenses are paid.

While interest rates are up (good news for the town and most investors), Esposito also reported that the cost of new equipment needed by the town had not been budgeted.

The town had also discovered that its previous insurance coverage had not included liability insurance for its lifeguards. That oversight was remedied in drawing up insurance contracts with a new company this year but at an increased cost.

Despite those oversights, the change in the town’s financial report from previous years was striking for those in attendance at the meeting.

Council Member Vicki Carmean said, “I was one of the biggest critics of the budgetary process when I came one four years ago.” Much has changed in those years, and Carmean credited the work of Esposito and town officials in making that happen. “What has happened with the town is amazing,” she declared.

With the stage set for the coming year, the next phase of budget discussion was to look at the needs established in the previous year’s workshop and assess whether they had been met.

Requests for increased police protection — at a level ensuring a patrol officer is available 24 hours a day in the town — were something Serio said the town had at least tried to address. But it is an area in which further effort will be made in the coming year, with plans to add a part-time officer for 30 hours per week during June, July and August.

Trash collection, with its overall service level deemed right for the town, still yielded some ongoing concerns about promoting recycling, timing of pickups and use by renters.

Carmean said the town was “not as successful as I would like to be on recycling.” Esposito said he believed part of the recycling use problem was simply a result of population trends. He said the town’s rental population has decreased, also producing a reduction in rental fees and taxes for the town, with a trend toward homes purchased as second homes and planned retirement locations — not for rental.

The town had budgeted for $22,000 in rental license fees for the year but brought in only $18,000, he noted.

Serio again raised the issue of outsourcing the town’s trash collection, saying she felt a decision on the matter was imminent in the next two to three years.

Council Member Harry Haon noted that previous requests for outside bids for collection service had yielded numbers that were substantially higher than the costs for in-house collection. He said, “It would be great if we were not in that business.” But concerns were also expressed that the collection would not get the “tender loving care” it currently receives from the town’s public works department.

Serio suggested the town consider a separate trash department as a sort of compromise on the issue. That, she said, would remove the extra demand on the public works employees and free them for other duties while still reducing the costs from that of outsourcing.

Esposito further noted that the town’s dumping fees were to increase 3 percent in the coming year, along with anticipated increases in other collection expenses.

Haon questioned whether the town should add a Saturday pickup tailored to renters, but Serio noted that such a change would mean the town would have to store the resulting trash until the landfill opened on Monday. (The storage of the town’s — generally empty — trash trucks is already an area of concern.) She instead suggested a bigger problem was that of blowing trashcans left out by weekend visitors for the Monday pickup.

Budgeting for the town’s lifeguards remained somewhat up in the air, as officials awaited a response from the state as to whether Fenwick Island guards will continue to cover the state-owned beach on its northern edge.

The concept has been firmed up with state, Brans said, but the town had requested an increase in its funding for the service, due to increased insurance costs for the guards. The final dollar amounts have yet to be confirmed by the state and the town has not been given a final go-ahead on the plan.

Brans noted that this year’s lifeguard service plan calls for two guards on every other chair along the beach on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There will be eight chairs in the town’s incorporated area, with another four anticipated for the state beach. That will mean a minimum of 20 guards working each day, with 30 guards hired to fully staff the patrol.

Carmean said she felt perhaps there had been too many guards on the beach last summer, pointing to times when she said groups of three or more guards had been socializing at their stands.

Brans, however, said he would rather keep the guards on the beach during their breaks, able to help in case of an emergency, rather than pushing them to leave the beach. He said he felt any problems with socializing from last year would be dealt with this year. “We have a different setup this year. I have faith in Tim (Ferry),” he said.

He further noted that the patrol was considering a change for bad-weather days, possibly giving some guards the day off in anticipation of reduced beach use. But he said such a plan would be at Ferry’s discretion, aiming to ensure sufficient coverage even on days with rainy mornings and sunny afternoons.

General issues from the previous year’s budget addressed, those attending the workshop turned their attention to the specifics of the coming year’s budget.

Administrative budgeting discussion focused on any perceived need for additional staff, the consensus being that the need did not really exist.

Brans noted that he felt the town’s administrative employees had a “volunteer spirit,” training to do portions of each other’s work and being willing to pitch in with extra help as needed.

Some projects handled by the staff, however, were deemed to be overly demanding on their time — particularly townwide mailings. Serio said she wondered what else staff members might be doing at times they had been preparing such mailings.

Brans and Carmean suggested volunteers from the community be called upon for such projects, but Serio said the availability of volunteers wasn’t so static that it could be depended upon for budgeting purposes. Instead, the idea of outsourcing the mailings was proposed.

Resident Wayne Carmean questioned whether the personal services contract for Esposito should be continued as such or merged into the town’s administration. Serio noted that the contract for the current year was ongoing but suggested the idea of including the position on the town’s payroll instead of as a contracted position.

Esposito himself also noted increases in administrative costs for the town’s insurance. The new “general insurance” policy covers the town’s liability, vehicle, property and workers’ compensation insurance and is expected to increase in cost due to normal rate increases and the addition of the lifeguards’ liability insurance.

He noted the town pays a good bit for liability insurance due to the risk of injury to both lifeguards and police officers. The town does receive reductions on its liability insurance due to positive safety inspections of work conditions, he said.

Asked whether the anticipated $104,000 budgeted for that general insurance policy would be enough, Esposito said he felt it was a liberal amount, intentionally left “a little on the high side.”

Ideas for the town’s property and building budget focused on possible renovations to the town hall. Of particular concern were the needs for paint on the ceiling of the town meeting room (currently unpainted) and sealing of the windows in the room (currently leaking).

Carmean also pointed to tentative plans to renovate the men’s room in a matching project to the recently completed ladies’ room renovations. Serio mentioned the need to replace the heat pump in the coming years. The question was when best to do so – now or in coming years.

Moving on to concrete plans for the town’s trash service, Serio noted that most anticipated changes for the year would not substantially affect the department’s budget. But Haon pointed out that any additional pickups would raise costs. Serio suggested the need for additional pickups be addressed to Public Works Supervisor Neil Hanrahan, who could better gauge whether that need was real.

Budgeting issues for the police department started with the expected increased costs for gas. With additional patrols and the plan to hire the additional part-time officer, the increase in cost will go beyond the simple increase in per-gallon price of fuel.

Brans noted that the part-time officer was being considered specifically to address complaints about times when the town did not have an officer to respond immediately to calls. The additional hire is intended to allow the department to keep two officers on duty at all times.
Carmean said she would like to see the department track the time it spends responding to calls for assistance in other jurisdictions, as well as that spent by officers from other jurisdictions in Fenwick Island. Such tracking would help point out when, and how often, the town’s resources were being strained by calls from outside the town.

Brans also noted that accidents at the Route 54/Route 1 intersection — which he said happen twice a day on weekends during the summer season — simply require Fenwick Island officers to direct traffic until the Delaware State Police can arrive to take charge of the scene. Not doing so, he said, results in “a big mess.”

Questioned as to whether there was any need for salary increases in the department, Brans said the town had worked hard to keep ahead of other departments in the area, hoping to retain officers by keeping “just a notch above everybody else” and thus avoid the cost and inconvenience of training new officers to replace departing ones.

Serio also pushed the need to support town employees — police officers and others — with training funds.

On the issue of beach and lifeguard expenses, Haon mentioned the potential need for a beach-cleaning machine. Brans said his feeling was that the beach was being kept sufficiently clean in the summer, with the efforts of lifeguards, but that spring and fall were indeed a problem. He noted that Hanrahan had been looking into a new beach-cleaning contractor in the area and said he would report back with further information.

Having addressed the specific needs and wants of the coming year’s budget, discussion moved on to allocations that might be made for future plans — the long-term future.

Haon also suggested the town look into putting its electrical supply underground. Serio noted ongoing concerns of the town’s citizens about overhead power lines.

Possible dredging of the town’s lagoon areas was also mentioned and supported by Haon as a navigation safety issue.

While he jokingly offered estimated costs for some of the projects, Haon said his point in doing so was to make clear that the town has no idea how much any of the proposed projects would costs. Each of the ideas would require a feasibility study to determine such information, he said.

The wish list grew to include more extensive renovations at the town hall, focusing on what has often been considered its inadequate size for current and future uses. The storage of trash trucks again emerged as an issue, with suggestions that the town acquire land for their storage.

Plans for the town’s dune crossovers will largely hinge on the anticipated beach reconstruction project, slated to begin in the fall. But the idea of benches and maintenance costs was raised for long-term consideration.

Over the long term, Brans also said the town would need to consider adding yet more police officers, while additional maintenance staff was also suggested.

Finally, in what would be a significant change for the town’s day-to-day operation, the eventual need for a town manager was raised. Brans said he felt such a person would have to be “someone who runs the whole show” and take responsibility for all that entailed. Serio noted that such a position would relieve some of the existing duties of council members.

The long-term suggestions made toward the end of the meeting may or may not move forward in the immediate future — or even the distant future. As with even the short-term goals mentioned at the workshop, they will have to be ironed out in discussion with department heads, council members and the town’s citizens.

The first stage of that process is set for Tuesday, April 12, at 2:30 p.m., when council members, Town Administrator Helen Torres, Esposito and others are set to meet with the town’s department heads. The meeting is intended to gather the department heads’ input on budgeting matters before an initial draft budget is created.