By Terry Harris
On June 2, the Sussex County 2021-22 fiscal year budget, which had been previously presented and discussed in numerous meetings, was approved by the Board of Supervisors. This was the first budget prepared by Richard Douglas since he became County Administrator, and Eric Fly, Chairman of the Finance Committee, described Douglas afterward as “A gem of a find” for the county.
Douglas, who has said that he believes in beginning the process of preparing the budget early, held a series of meetings with the board in keeping with his stated goal of having everyone with an interest in the budget involved as things progressed so that there would be “no surprises for anyone” at the end.
Describing this year’s budget as “actually fairly complicated,” Supervisor Fly reiterated afterward what had been discussed at several previous meetings, which was that revenues were down over a million dollars “mainly because of less sales tax because everything was shut down so long for covid” which necessitated making some adjustments within the county.
Some of the adjustments made included eliminating the large building and grounds department and switching over to contracting out all building and grounds services as well as reducing staff in zoning and planning.
Fly indicated that citizens should see little to no impact as those are “just cost cutting measures,” adding, “We’ve tightened our belt a little bit to make up that 1.2 million.”
One big change was in the School Board’s budget, about which Fly said, “It is the first time since I have been on board that we have reduced the school board’s budget. We needed to reduce it by half a million but only did $250,000.”
Fly explained that the board knew that Sussex County Schools had been “being over-budgeted” and hoped that the School Board would work with them on necessary adjustments.
“We were disappointed,” he said. “The County Administrator notified the school system in January that we needed to work together to reduce the budget due to the revenue shortfall, and the school board sent us a budget that was exactly the same as last year’s budget. That sent the message that they were unwilling to work with us to help resolve budget issues. So, the Board of Supervisors had to take the sole action to reduce the budget. We had hoped they would do it voluntarily, but they did not, so we did.”
Fly, who is also the longest seated member of the board, said that he was pleased that they were able to balance budget.
“We did not raise taxes,” he said. “A lot of CARES money helped fill some of the budget gaps and the board did something in this budget we never did before that took a lot of convincing to get me as finance director to go along with.”
“Traditionally we have purchased our fire trucks with cash,” Fly continued. “With the county needing more than one firetruck in a short revenue year, we went to leasing THREE fire trucks – at 1.5 million. But you HAVE to have firetrucks in great shape. You cannot have a truck you cannot trust when someone’s house is on fire and their life is in danger, and we have a lot of old trucks that need to be replaced. So, by stretching the payment over 10 years rather than having to shell out a lump sum like we typically do, we were able to bring our costs of government down and reduce the expenditures in this year’s budget so that our expenditures now match our decreased revenue.”
Reiterating his relief at the board’s being able to come up with a balanced and workable budget in spite of the challenges, Fly said, “Our County Administrator has done an outstanding job. He is professional, well-schooled, can handle and understands the process. A gem of a find for Sussex County.”