Sussex County Delaware

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Sussex County Council ...

Council Discusses Issue
of Reassessing County

By ERIC MAGILL
SC Online Publisher

GEORGETOWN -- Sussex County Council discussed the possibility of reassessment during its regular meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2002.

The county has not conducted a reassessment since 1974, a situation that causes complaints about inequities in county taxes between owners of newer and older homes.

Councilman Vance Phillips raised the issue during Tuesday's council meeting after he and County Adminstrator Robert L. Stickels met with county school district leaders at Delmar High School on Monday, Feb. 4.

Those leaders questioned the county about the possibility of a reassessment with the idea that it would raise additional revenue for their districts through the state's equalization formula. Stickels said it was decided to discuss the issue with school district officials and council members further.

Phillips said he was most concerned about the property tax increase senior citizens who have lived their entire lives in the county would see from a reassessment.

He also said he didn't necessarily see a need for a reassessment to correct perceived inequities because the county assesses all properties at 1974 market values, regardless of when they were built. "You may build a million-dollar property," said Phillips, "but it will only be assessed at $150,000."

Phillips said that school district officials are seeking more equitable funding, particularly on the western side of the county, where they see all of the money going to coastal school districts that benefit from retirees buying homes and increasing property values in those districts while not putting kids in the school systems there.

The problem with using a reassessment to try to correct that perceived inequity, however, is that a reassessment would cost the county approximately $3 million, according to Stickels, and may require a tax increase to pay for it.

"I support providing equitable school funding," said Phillips. "I'm only now being introduced to the problems the lack of reassessments is causing our school districts. But as I told them (school officials) last night, I have nobody calling me on the phone asking me to reassess their property.

"To the contrary, I see it as an issue affecting county finances (the cost to do the reassessment), and since we're very secure in our current financial situation, I have no interest in doing anything that would potentially raise county property taxes. I wouldn't support anything that would have the appearance of increasing taxes."

As for the impact on long-time citizens of the county, Phillips said the reassessment would unfairly burden them.

"On a county-wide basis, I have the feeling some of the biggest losers in this process would be long-time Sussex Countians who have not built a beach home and have lived in their homes the last 50 years," said Phillips. "They would see a great increase in the value of their properties and that would lead to an increase in taxes. They don't put a burden on county services. The ones who need to be paying are the ones who are moving to the county from the outside."

Stickels also said he believed that "the pot of gold" from a reassessment would not get any bigger for the school districts "from what we've been hearing."

Stickels said properties in the county are currently assessed at between 11 and 15 percent of their market value.

Cole added that school districts do have the power to raise revenues on their own through referendum.

Sheriff's Lawsuit ...

Council member Vance Phillips asked County Solicitor Eugene Bayard if council members could comment on the lawsuit filed by Sheriff Robert Reed against Delaware Attorney General M. Jane Brady and Secretary of Public Safety James L. Ford last week.

Bayard said council was free to comment on the suit because it was not a party to the suit. But after the council meeting, Phillips declined to comment on the suit at this time.

County resident John Reeves, however, spoke at length about the suit and asked each council member to issue a press release giving his opinion on the suit.

Reeves was cut off on several occasions by County Solicitor Eugene Bayard, County Administrator Robert L. Stickels, and Council President Finley B. Jones, who informed Reeves that while they appreciated his opinion, a county council meeting wasn't the proper forum to discuss the issue because council couldn't act on the issue.

"You can talk to us all day," said Stickels, "and we can not do anything for you."

Reeves told council members that he supported the Sheriff and simply wanted council to do the same. He didn't get much encouragement, though.

"The council has taken the position by consensus that the sheriff has traditionally been an officer of the court," said Councilman George Cole. "We've been advised not only on the Constitution but also on history, and we've taken that position. There is no consensus from council that the sheriff's duties should be expanded. We support what the sheriff has traditionally done. None of the three counties have sheriffs that have done that (policing) for 50 years plus."

Reeves wasn't swayed, however. He said the sheriff has police powers as defined by the state Constitution and that whether past sheriffs have excercised those powers or not is irrelevant.

He also said the county "is being short-changed. The county could take the same money it uses for state police and create a county police force like every other county in the country has."

Cole said the dramatic increase in the county's budget from establishing such a force would require a substantial tax increase and that he felt it was more cost-effective for the county to continue to hire state police officers to patrol the county.

"You've got a $7 million surplus," said Reeves. "Take some of that money."

Council Decisions ...

Sussex County Council unanimously approved a number of minor items Tuesday:

  • Council unanimously approved a bid from David A. Bramble Inc. of Cambridge, Md., for $413,081 for a new force main and upgrades to the pump station in the Ocean View Expansion of the Bethany Beach Sanitary Sewer District. Project Engineer Doug Stewart told council that Bramble's bid was the lowest of the seven received. Stewart said the county budgeted $468,000 for the project. He said the improvements will increase the capacity of the Ocean View pump station to 1,600 gallons per minute.

  • Council unanimously approved an agreement allowing Finance Director David Baker to hire the consulting firm Insurance Buyers Council to overhaul the county's insurance programs. Baker told council that the county's insurance rates are rising dramatically, from $477,000 in Fiscal Year 2001 to $540,000 in FY2002. Baker said he expects those rates to rise even higher in FY2003. The agreement calls for the Insurance Buyer's Council to prepare requests for insurance proposals, prepare competitive bids, and make recommendations on the ensuing bids. Council agreed to pay IBC a maximum of $17,500 plus necessary expenses for up to five complete property and liability proposals.

  • Council approved several conditional acceptances and agreements by the county for sewer service to various developments. Council unanimously approved conditional acceptances for Savannah's Landing Phase VI, the Villages at Bear Trap Dunes Phases II and IIA, Mill Pond Acres, and the Wolfe Pointe Regional Pumping Station and Force Main.

  • Council unanimously approved the reallocation of unused money in its 2001 Private Activity Bond Volume Cap to the Delaware State Housing Authority or the Delaware Economic Development Council. The county received $18.75 million from the state for industrial bonds in 2001 but only used approximately $15 million. Council's action returned the remainder of that fund to the state.

  • Council approved a construction administration and construction inspection agreement for the 36-lot Kinsale Glen development in the West Rehoboth Expansion of the Dewey Beach Sanitary Sewer District.

  • Council also awarded the following grant requests:
    1. $200 to Sussex Technical High School's Science Olympiad Team;
    2. $400 for building construction for the Friends of the Georgetown Public Library;
    3. $500 to Kent-Sussex Industries Inc. for a 2003 Wall Calendar sponsorship;
    4. $1,000 to the Rehoboth Art League for building construction;
    5. $600 to Lewes Mayor George Smith to attend a government conference.

In Other Business ...
  • Council heard the introduction of two proposed ordinances. One would give a conditional use for used car sales to Richard Mark Miller in an AR-1 District in Nanticoke Hundred on a 4.9-acre parcel. The other would rezone 60 acres in Baltimore Hundred from AR-1 to HR-1 RPC High Density for Raymond McCabe and Jay Oliver Smith.

  • Correspondence was received from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from Americana Bayside to fill 6.8 acres of wetlands and farmland at the 880-acre site. The Corps said Americana Bayside seeks to fill the acreage along Roy and Drum creeks, including 4.7 acres of agricultural ditches and 1.46 acres of forested wetlands. Anyone wishing to comment on the application should contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

  • County Administrator Robert L. Stickels informed council that the Positive Growth Alliance will hold a public meeting regarding land use on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2002, at 7 p.m. at the CHEER Center in Georgetown. Among the guest speakers will be Lee Ann Walling, spokesperson for Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, on the governor's Livable Delaware program.

  • Stickels informed council that the Delaware Department of Transportation will hold a meeting on its 2003-2008 Capital Improvement Program at its South District Office conference room on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2002, at 6 p.m. The office is located at the corner of Bedford Street and U.S. 113.

  • Stickels also informed council that a public hearing will be held on the proposed South Ocean View expansion of the Ocean View Expansion of the Bethany Beach Sanitary Sewer District on Saturday, Feb. 9, 2002, at 9 a.m. in the Millville Fire Hall.

  • Council member Dale Dukes was absent to attend to business out of town.

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