County approves $121.1M budget, one-time tax credit for property owners

The Sussex County Council, following a public hearing Tuesday, June 19, unanimously approved the proposed $121.1 million budget for their 2013 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

While the adopted budget officially keeps in place the county’s property tax rate of 44.5 cents per $100 of assessed value for the 23rd consecutive year, it does factor in something new explained county officials: a one-time tax credit for county property owners who are current on their property taxes.

The one-time credit of 3.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, or about 8 percent on the county portion of tax bills, is made possible by a revenue surplus from 2011. The credit will be included in tax bills to be mailed this August, returning about $1 million overall to taxpayers.

The $121.1 million budget is down from the current year’s budget, in part because most of the work on the five major sewer projects the County has been doing in recent years has been completed.

Highlights of the 2013 budget include a modest .18 percent general fund increase ($84,000) and a decrease in sewer assessment charges due to successful bond re-financing.

In the adopted budget there are no fee or tax increases. There are some modest increases in sewer service charges – ranging from $8 to $15 annually, depending upon the sewer district – as the County continues to try to makes sewer rates uniform for the bulk of their 55,000 customers. But sewer assessment rates will be lowered in 18 districts after successful refinancing of $61 million in sewer construction bonds earlier this year. Finance Director Susan Webb explained that the County saved around $8 million through the recent re-financing.

With the included tax credit in next year’s budget, the average county tax bill for a single-family home will drop to just below $100 annually. That figure does not include school taxes, which are billed and collected by the County but set by the individual local school districts.

“Once again, Sussex County has shown it is possible to have a balanced, fiscally responsible budget that keeps costs under control and still provides the services people have come to expect,” County Administrator Todd Lawson said. “That’s not always easy to do, especially in the new economy.”

In other news from their June 19 meeting, the county council discussed in detail several bills that are proposed in the Delaware General Assembly. Among the bills discussed is House Bill 336, which the County initiated and which deals with property assessors. Deputy County Administrator Hal Godwin said he believes HB 336 has stalled but said they have two more years before it would go into law if it were passed. Godwin also said the bill regarding the capitation tax would be discussed this week in the legislature.

County council members also talked at length about SB 231, concerning FOIA regulations. Many of the councilpersons, staff members and attorneys had questions about the bill.

“I think we should ask Todd or Hal to put together a response to this bill about the cost and the time… It needs to be addressed,” said Councilman George Cole.

Councilwoman Joan Deaver said they should be “very cautious” to be transparent because they did not want to make it too expensive for a citizen to make a FOIA request, but she said that, in many instances, the information being requested is already available online for people to find.

“We have come miles in public information,” said Deaver.

Public Information Director Chip Guy added that he didn’t want to add an extra burden on someone simply requesting information he could provide them with and that he didn’t want to burden staff either.

“It formalizes everything,” he said. “Where do we draw the line of what is a simple request and what is a full-fledged FOIA request?”

County Attorney Everett Moore said he also had issues with the county not being able to recoup their costs and the 15-day time period for more extensive requests.

“Many times, they will end up on my desk, and it is very difficult to get it in the 15-day period,” said Moore.

The full text of the FOIA bill is available online at$file/legis.html?open.

Godwin said he would take the council’s consensus back to legislative hall, informing legislators that, while the County wants to be transparent and wants to oblige with requests for information, they have some issues with not being able to recoup costs and with some of the other language in the bill.