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Sussex County adopts $157.8M budget for fiscal 2021

Delaware News Desk
Sussex Countian

Sussex County Council, following a public hearing via teleconference June 23, voted unanimously to approve the proposed $157.8 million budget for the 2021 fiscal year that begins July 1.

By law, Sussex County must adopt a balanced budget by June 30 each year.

The adopted budget keeps county property taxes unchanged for another year, though the county expects a dip in income, particularly among real-estate related revenues, in coming months. To offset the projected revenue downturn, the county trimmed departmental spending, canceled new major capital projects and capped its grants programs to allow time for the local economy to recover, all while maintaining core services, such as public safety, wastewater and libraries.

“To say this is a bare-bones budget is an understatement,” said County Administrator Todd F. Lawson. “The COVID-19 crisis forced the county, just as it did the state and federal governments, to re-evaluate funding and spending priorities and plan accordingly. This budget reflects the new realities in a post-pandemic world.”

“But there is reason to be optimistic,” continued Lawson. “If the pandemic continues to level off or subside through the summer and into the fall, and revenues begin to pick up again as businesses and construction resume, then we can supplement this budget to fund projects and initiatives later in the year. This budget allows the county to take a wait-and-see approach, all while maintaining our day-to-day services the public depend on.”

The overall proposed budget, which is 15% lower from the current year, is designed with revenues projected to be down to 65%-85% of their fiscal 2020 levels, reflecting the financial downturn caused by the global pandemic. The budget, like those before it, is supported by a mix of income streams, including property taxes, realty transfer taxes, sewer service fees, building permit fees and document recording fees. That revenue, in turn, funds local services including paramedics and 911 dispatchers, public wastewater treatment, building inspection and public libraries.

Among the adopted fiscal 2021 budget’s highlights, the plan includes $1 million to cover engineering costs of a previously planned public safety complex that would expand the Emergency Operations Center to accommodate the County’s Emergency Medical Services’ administrative offices and training facilities; maintains funding, at $3.4 million, for the county’s contract with the state of Delaware for the 22 supplemental state police troopers assigned to Sussex County; allocates $750,000 to continue broadband Internet expansion in rural areas; devotes $1.7 million to preserve open space and farmland; and keeps property tax rates and sewer service changes unchanged.

County Finance Director Gina A. Jennings said the budget was designed as a baseline spending plan that can be modified in the new fiscal year as quarterly revenue outlooks yield more information. If revenues derived from realty transfer tax, building permits, building inspections and through document filings in the Recorder of Deeds office exceed a given quarter’s budget by at least $1 million, numerous departmental expenses, purchases and projects/initiatives can be restored through prioritized budget amendments.

Council President Michael H. Vincent said while the budget may represent a changed economy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it no less represents the county’s long-standing tradition of conservative financial management.

“Whether good times or not so good times, Sussex County taxpayers can always count on their money being used prudently and wisely,” said Vincent. “This budget is surely no different.”

Copies of the fiscal 2021 budget, as well as the accompanying budget presentation, aer available at sussexcountyde.gov/county-budget.