Judge chides Delaware counties in outdated assessments suit

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DOVER, Del. (AP) — Officials in Delaware’s three counties seem to be looking for excuses to delay resolution of a lawsuit in which they were found to be violating both state law and Delaware’s constitution in using outdated property tax assessments, a judge said Friday.

The comment from Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster came at a status conference he held after failed attempts to negotiate a remedy in the case.

Laster refused the counties’ request to put the case on hold and said he'd hold a two-day hearing in March to determine how and when the counties will carry out reassessments to bring property assessments in line with market values. Property taxes are a key funding component for school districts.

Attorneys for the ACLU and Community Legal Aid Society want reassessments to be finished by 2024, in time for the 2025 tax year. They noted that consultants hired by the counties have indicated that timeline is feasible.

Richard Morse, a Community Legal Aid attorney, said the court needs to set a deadline after which the counties won't be allowed to collect property taxes if they haven’t reassessed.

Attorneys for the counties argued the case should be put on hold while they seek proposals from companies to carry out the reassessments. They also say a statewide general reassessment and statewide reassessment policy are needed, rather than a county-by-county approach. They hope to persuade state lawmakers to help pick up the tab.

“We’re trying to see if we can improve on what’s been proposed,” said Nick Brannick, an attorney for New Castle County. Brannick also cited uncertainty about local government finances because of the coronavirus as a reason to put the case on hold.

But Morse told Laster he received an email Friday morning in which an attorney stated that New Castle County, the state’s most populous, would not issue a request for proposals to conduct a reassessment unless the plaintiffs agreed to “pencils down” in the lawsuit.

Laster suggested the counties appeared to be deliberately stonewalling, even though they agree reassessments must be done.

“My perception is that there’s been backsliding going on on the counties’ side. ... I feel like there is manufacturing of excuses at this point,” he said.

Laster also said that whether the counties can enlist the state’s help is not his concern.

“My job is to enforce the plain language of a statute that’s on the books, and my job is to enforce a constitutional provision,” he said.

Meanwhile, the state Senate president appears to have little interest in helping the counties.

“The county governments in Delaware have consistently refused to meet their constitutionally-mandated responsibility to reassess properties despite countless economic cycles and worsening inequities in our public schools," Sen. David Sokola said in a Thursday email to The Associated Press. "Sadly, it would not surprise me if their position remained unchanged even in the face of pending legal action.

“What is changing, however, is the public’s tolerance for this kind of stonewalling year after year, and decade after decade,” added Sokola, a Newark Democrat and longtime Education Committee chair.

In May, Laster said the counties’ tax assessment schemes violate a constitutional requirement that properties be taxed uniformly, as well as a state law requiring that real property be assessed at “its true value in money.” The Delaware Supreme Court has interpreted that to mean present fair market value.

But the law doesn't require reassessments on any particular schedule. Kent County in central Delaware last reassessed property values in 1987, while northern New Castle County’s current assessment dates to 1983. Sussex County, home to million-dollar beach homes in southern Delaware, last reassessed properties in 1974.

As a result, many owners of expensive homes in areas where property values have increased are getting a substantial break, while those living in economically depressed areas are paying more than they should.

Local property taxes account for about one-third of funding for Delaware's public schools, with the rest coming from state government. The plaintiffs alleged state and local officials have failed to provide adequate educational opportunities for disadvantaged students, partly because of school property tax collections' basis on decades-old assessments.

The lawsuit was divided into two separate tracks, one involving the county defendants and the other involving state officials as defendants.

Last month, Democratic Gov. John Carney announced a settlement in the state track that requires him to seek significantly higher funding from the legislature for disadvantaged students, defined as children from low-income families, those with disabilities and children whose first language is not English.

Among other things, Carney must propose budgets for next year and the following year that include at least $35 million for disadvantaged students. He is required to seek appropriations of at least $50 million for the 2023-2024 school year and $60 million for the 2024-2025 school year. He also is required to propose legislation to make funding for disadvantaged students a permanent fixture in the state budget.


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