Budget talks for 2007 continue in South Bethany

At the second of their planned budget meetings for the 2007 fiscal year, South Bethany Town Council members heard from Maintenance Mechanic Don Chrobot as to anticipated needs from the town’s Public Works department.

Topping Chrobot’s list of financial expenditures was a new six-wheeled vehicle anticipated to replace pickup trucks as the vehicle of choice for work on the beach. Chrobot provided detailed information on the $10,000 vehicle, describing its use to traverse the wider beach and dunes that are to be built as part of the planned Bethany Beach-South Bethany beach reconstruction project this fall.

In addition to regular maintenance chores for which the town currently uses — but could no longer feasibly use — pickup trucks, Chrobot said the vehicle could also be used to move lifeguard stands across the expanded beach (currently done by hand, across a much narrower stretch) and would be available for officers in the South Bethany Police Department to use in accessing the beach for law enforcement purposes.

As such, it could join the rented all-terrain vehicles the department has used in the past on the Fourth of July to enforce the state’s ban on citizens’ use of fireworks of all kinds.

Chrobot noted that the vehicle has two operation modes, controlled by separate keys. One allows the vehicle to travel up to 42 mph, while a second key limits the vehicle’s speed to 25 mph. Chrobot said that feature would allow him to entrust the vehicle to younger members of the public works staff, without fear of excessive speeds being used.

The vehicle also has a number of optional attachments, including a small plow that could be used to clear sidewalks on Route 1, as well as to remove wayward sand from the beach access walkways. Chrobot said neighboring Bethany Beach already has several of the vehicles and finds them very useful. The vehicle is also more fuel-efficient than a pickup truck.

Council members were enthusiastic about the planned purchase and Chrobot offered them rides on the vehicle when it arrives.

Also high on the council members’ lists for enthusiastic reception were plans to implement the town’s long-anticipated landscaping makeover.

Chrobot has coordinated with former Bethany Beach horticulturist Chantal Bouchard to develop a three-year landscaping plan for the town through her new consulting firm. The plan calls for some $10,000 in plants, part of a $6,800 increase in the landscaping budget for the coming year. But Chrobot said the total costs for implementing the plan would be reduced by relying largely on in-house work.

“When you see what we’re going to do with it, it will be well worth it,” Chrobot told council members emphatically. “People will come to South Bethany to see our landscaping.”

Bouchard is to aid in the planting this year, helping Chrobot to learn about the landscaping process for his future reference. The plan also calls for large numbers of perennials and drought-resistant/salt-tolerant plants, meaning minimal maintenance for the town and, hopefully, long life for the plantings themselves.

In contrast to the $10,000 figure for plants, Councilman Bob Cestone noted that Chrobot had recently saved the town nearly $10,000 with some determined electrical work on the south end of the town, solving an electrical problem that was anticipated to cost $10,000 to fix with a mere $100 final cost to the town.

With full council support, the plants for the project may be purchased even before the budget is adopted. Some $5,000 remains in the landscaping budget for the 2006 fiscal year, and Chrobot was to pursue a short-term plan to get the plant purchases going in time to get an early start on the project this spring.

Among the other notable changes in the Public Works budget for the 2007 fiscal year:

• Increased gasoline costs, up an estimated $1,000;

• Increased garbage collection costs, due to a planned increase under the town’s five-year contract — up $7,000;

• Decreases in vehicle maintenance costs, due to more in-house work — down $1,600;

• A possible $2,500 expense for new street walkways, possibly the controversial Russell Road-area walkway. Council members agreed not to specify the project or to approve it being done without further scrutiny as to the need and as to public calls for/objections to the idea, but said the funding should be included in the budget, for now; and

• A decrease of $31,000 in the street maintenance budget (storm cleanup and pavement repairs), to $30,000, based on what was determined to be an overestimate of needs for the 2006 fiscal year.

The total operating budget for Public Works, as drafted: $362,568.

Under the department’s capital budget:

• A decrease from $59,000 to $35,000 for drainage projects, due to what Chrobot described as a highly successful program in the 2006 fiscal year, with some eight new catch basins installed; and

• Replacement of the town’s code-enforcement vehicle, at $11,997.

Highlighting Police Chief Joe Deloach’s draft budget for the South Bethany Police Department was a requested program allowing police officers to take home their patrol vehicles.

Deloach said the program existed in most towns in the area, in one of two forms. Some departments provided “permanent” take-home vehicles, allowing officers to take home their patrol cars seven days a week. Others use a “during shift” program, which allows the officers to take home their vehicle between adjacent shifts. For instance, an officer working on Thursday and Friday, but off on Saturday, could take home his vehicle on Thursday night but would leave the patrol car at the department on Friday night.

Deloach endorsed the latter type of program, saying it would be a tremendous benefit for the officers living outside the immediate area of South Bethany and would likely not be applicable for the one officer living nearby, in Ocean View.

The main selling point of the program for the town, according to Deloach, is that it would help retain officers over the long-term, as well as providing an extra incentive during the hiring process after officers’ initial two-year commitment.

Deloach said he knew of at least one officer who had been ready to be work for the South Bethany department until another department had put in an offer that included a take-home car. The town would also benefit by having the officer essentially on-call while the car was at home, as well as reducing response time when officers were called in.

In return, the officers not only get to save the wear and tear of commuting on their personal vehicles but fuel expense, as well. They would have to follow department regulations as to the care and use of the vehicle, and would not be allowed to use it for personal business.

Deloach said the program could be a tremendous morale booster for the department — at an estimated cost of $1,000 per officer per year, for four of the five officers. Council members were enthusiastic about the idea, offering unanimous support. (Councilmen Richard Ronan and Jay Headman were absent for the raising of hands.)

Deloach also noted a needed increase in fuel costs for the department, which is already facing an estimated overrun this year of $11,000 to $12,000 due to increases in gas costs. He asked for $15,000 above last year’s budgeted amount, to cover expected similar prices for the coming fiscal year.

Also in the police chief’s budget requests:

• An increase of approximately $230,000 in salaries, attributed entirely to $309,000 in buyouts on the town’s old pension plan, with the department only at 72 percent of its anticipated salaries to this point in the current fiscal year; and

• Plans to replace police vehicles at a rate of two every three years, budgeted at $15,000 per year.

Reviewing elements of the town’s general capital budget, Financial Administrator Renee McDorman noted $2.5 million in current reserves, including $980,000 in reserves allocated for the new town hall and police station, $300,000 for the tidal pump project and $500,000 for beach replenishment.

She told the council that the town’s auditor had encouraged the town to earmark more of its reserves to be spent for specific projects but said there was a danger that in overallocating funds that the town might lose grants and other such funds. For instance, overallocating to beach replenishment might mean less help from the Delaware Emergency Management Agency were a disaster to strike the town’s beaches.

Endeavoring to follow the auditor’s advice for earmarking, the council agreed to work on a more detailed plan for the tidal pump project in the coming months, hoping to line up what funds might be needed and when. Town Manager Melvin Cusick noted that while a request had been made to pursue permitting for the project, much of the information needed for an application was not yet available to him.

Also in the capital budget:

• $22,500 for the town’s share of expenses for Marlowe & Co. beach replenishment lobbying and related activities; and

• $15,000 to pay for installation of the town’s emergency generator (equipment paid for with a $30,000 Homeland Security grant).

With the second of three planned budget workshops completed, council member confirmed the final workshop for March 23, at 7 p.m. at the town hall, with a recap and balancing of the budget set for that time.