Report: Fenwick's finances in the pink

Major renovations to Fenwick Island’s accounting system have paid off for the town, with a clean review from the town’s auditor for the 2003-2004 fiscal year. In fact, the auditor had only one recommendation for the town: consider a higher-yield investment for cash reserves.

At the town council meeting Friday, Jan. 28, Council Member Harry Haon presented the auditor’s report, as well as the comments of the town’s audit committee, which he heads. Haon praised the work of Financial Manager Gary Espisito, in place in the position for only that financial year until the present, as well as the function of the new computerized accounting system, also a year old.

The audit found no unresolved discrepancies for the fiscal year ending July 1, 2004, Haon noted, and the auditor recommended no changes to accounting practices or procedures.

The town’s annual revenue was shown to have grown more than 11 percent in the previous four years, he said, from approximately $880,000 to $1.272 million, largely due to the rental tax. He noted the rental tax growth had largely been due to increasing values of rental units rather than an increase in their number. Additional revenue growth had been from fees paid for building permits, Haon said.

In contract, the town’s expenditures had grown less than 3 percent, from approximately $1.110 million to $1.114 million in the four-year period examined. Haon noted that the auditor had commended the town’s restraint in controlling spending while its revenue grew.

Indeed, the town during that four-year period went from a 4 percent deficit to a 13 percent positive cash flow.

The auditor’s sole recommendation was that the town consider a higher-interest account, such as a certificate of deposit (CD), for monies in its cash reserves.

The audit committee unanimously approved the report, Haon noted.

Council Member Vicki Carmean inquired as to whether the town was in compliance with a previous recommendation to keep a six-month cash reserve. Haon said that was now the case, though the funds were still being kept in the town’s general fund. Council Member Audrey Serio suggested the town now consider long-range planning for improvements to the town on the basis of its financial position.

Council members unanimously accepted the auditor’s report.

Council President Peter Frederick also announced at the Jan. 28 meeting that he had met with Delaware Department of Natural Resources (DNREC) Secretary John Hughes in recent weeks to discuss the parking situation in coastal towns and bus access to those towns.

Frederick described the meeting as “a healthy exchange of ideas” that included discussion of the state park facilities to the north of the town. Among those ideas is that Fenwick Island would take control of an area of state-controlled land to the north of the town and operate it as a shuttle-bus drop-off facility for the state park.

Under the tentative plan, the town would receive property on both the east and west sides of Coastal Highway. The west-side property would potentially be used as the new public works facility for the town, with the town property now used by that department to then be used to expand the town park.

The east-side property would allow shuttle buses from outlying communities to drop off their residents at the state park’s beach facilities, thereby reducing vehicular traffic in the town and the parking hassles caused by numerous private vehicles. Fenwick Island would likely run the drop-off location, provide lifeguard services and collect any related fees.

However, annexation of the property, or even direct town control are not a mandatory part of the plan, Frederick said. The option of doing so, however, was made to express the town’s “willingness to participate,” according to Haon, “but we’ll be happy to have the state take over,” he said.

Frederick said the talks were part of an ongoing discussion of the matter but noted that DNREC had requested $400,000 from the state legislature in the current budget proposal to pay for shuttle programs. That request has not yet been discussed by legislators.

The idea of a town-operated shuttle drop-off location was also one of the topics supported by the Sussex County Association of Towns (SCAT) in a request to the county legislators, reported Frederick.

The proposal calls for the county to demand that all new building permits require the users of those properties to have shuttle buses to bring them to the beach towns. It also requests support from the state to address beach replenishment issues, particularly if federal funding is not forthcoming for areas such as Bethany Beach.

Frederick also noted that the 50-year construction project for Fenwick Island is on track. The funding for the work is in place and equipment is scheduled to arrive in the town around Aug. 15, 2005, he said. That would mean the pumping of sand would begin before the end of August, working from the south to the north.

The reconstruction project will actually start with “feathering” the new beach from the existing sands of Ocean City at 143rd Street. Generally, replenishment is done in 1,000-foot sections, each taking approximately two weeks, Frederick said. With 7,000 feet of beachfront to cover, the reconstruction project is expected to take approximately 14 weeks, plus time to create dune crossovers.

Frederick also confirmed a $307,280 grant had been offered to Fenwick Island to pay for its proposed median project. The contract for the project with the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) had been signed, he said. The Jan. 28 meeting also served as official notification for the public that the project was in the works and would proceed to public discussion.

That discussion began later in the meeting with the presentation of updated preliminary design drawings for the medians. Carmean, as Beautification Committee chairwoman, said the plan calls for two trees per crossover section. Those trees would be a “fringe tree,” a flowering variety approved by DelDOT as having a minimal impact on safety and upright growth.

Accompanying plantings would include crepe myrtle, spirea, winterberry, liriope and purple coneflower, in a variety of shades from white to pink to purple, Carmean said. The plantings were all designed to be appropriate for the weather, with minimal mess to be made from shed flower petals and no stickers of which pedestrians would have to be wary.

Carmean noted that discussion of including a brick-textured walkway for pedestrian crossings is not part of the first phase of the median plan. If implemented, it would be five to six years down the road, she said. It would also likely be a dyed, imprinted concrete pattern, rather than a potential maintenance-heavy creation of real brick, she added.

Public input on the project is required as it proceeds to the next stage. The preliminary plans are available for viewing at Fenwick Island Town Hall.

With the retirement of Building Committee member Thad Carpenter to Florida, Anthony DeSeras was accepted by the council as his replacement on the committee. DeSeras, it was noted, has more than 30 years’ experience as a residential builder.

Fenwick Island Freeze organizer JoEllen Cain presented an official report on the event to the council. She said 76 people had pre-registered for the event, with an additional 78 people signing up on the day it was held, for a total of 154 registered participants. Cain said she believed 135 of those people had gone in the water that day, with 38-degree water temperatures and 68-degree air temperatures.

The Freeze gained $1,190 in revenue, with the exact amount of expenses yet to be determined. The expenses included the making of T-shirts and the cost of emergency support. She noted there were no injuries or health-related incidents at the event.

Cain said planning for the 2006 edition would begin earlier this year, but she vowed to keep it “not too big” in an effort to “keep the Fenwick Island flavor.” Anyone interested in assisting in the planning was invited to contact Cain.

Also in the planning stages is a fishing tournament with its inaugural event tentatively set for November of 2006. Organizers said the tournament was set in Fenwick Island in November to take advantage of the runs of large coastal fish at that time of year.

Public Works Supervisor Neil Hanrahan reported to town council members that December had been a busy month for his department, with much work on holiday décor, as well as renovations to the ladies’ room at town hall.

He noted that the town’s new trash truck is now in service. The 2005 model is the second new truck for the town in five years — a much needed addition, according to Hanrahan. The town’s public works staff is also continuing to work on drainage issues, moving their focus from Bora Bora to Houston Street to work on ponding issues.

Serio said she had requested Hanrahan obtain cost estimates for upgraded street signs, similar to those currently being placed in Bethany Beach. The expense would be considered under the budget for the town’s next fiscal year, she said.

Haon took the opportunity to request input as to a possible speaker for the planned Memorial Day 2005 event in the town.

Frederick, meanwhile, noted that the town had been contacted by its solicitor regarding the fees charged in collecting unpaid taxes from property owners. The attorney’s office questioned whether the town wanted to charge a standard $30 collection fee.

The mayor noted that such a fee was allowed for in the town’s charter, up to 18 percent of the taxes and penalties due. However, it does not currently exist in the town’s schedule of fees. He proposed it be added, at $30 plus any delivery charges, up to the 18 percent limit, on an as-needed basis.

Frederick noted that the point of the fee was not for the town to make money but rather to recover actual expenses of collecting the past-due taxes. A vote on the issue was tabled until the council’s February meeting, to allow for time to get the fee structure in writing and possibly incorporate additional changes to the town’s schedule of fees for council’s consideration.

The next meeting of the Fenwick Island Town Council is set for Friday, Feb. 25. A workshop-without-agenda is set for Saturday, Feb. 12.