GEORGETOWN, Del. - A lot has changed over the last four decades, except the property tax formula for Sussex County. Soon, that could change too.
State Sen. George Bunting, D-Bethany Beach, is calling for the first countywide property reassessment since 1973.
"It's a fairness issue. It's not looking to raise someone's taxes," said Bunting. "But the western school districts are struggling and it's a lot to do with their tax base and their ability to pay."
Bunting raised the issue in a Jan. 27, 2012 letter to the Sussex County Council. He noted taxpayers in school districts on the western side of the county pay the highest school tax rates yet face "looming financial problems." The state senator hopes reassessment could lead to lower tax rates and a more favorable economic climate for the western communities.
"This is too controversial for most politicians to handle going into an election year," said Bunting. "Hopefully wisdom prevails that you have to look out to the future."
The first and last assessment finished around 1974. Richard Nixon was in the White House at the time.
Plans for a statewide reassessment fell through in the mid 1990s after Kent County ultimately refused to go along.
Sussex County would have to reassess roughly 170,000 parcels of land, said county spokesman Chip Guy. At an estimated rate of $40 to $50 per parcel, the bill could total $8.5 million.
"Certainly the price tag on the assessment is a concern," said County Administrator Todd Lawson. "Who pays for it and the benefits received from reassessment."
The administration said it is open to discussing the issue with the stakeholders, including school districts and state leaders. But county leaders expressed concern they could be left to pay for a reassessment that would primarily benefit the school districts.
The county already collects school taxes on behalf of the individual districts; nearly 85-percent of taxes collected by Sussex are forwarded to the schools, Guy said.
Lawson noted the county's low tax rate has been a "badge of honor" for years. It is unclear if the county council would adjust the rate, which has not changed in the last 22 years, to reflect a reassessment.
Delaware law restricts the amount of revenue school districts and local governments can gain from reassessment; local governments are limited to a 15-percent change, schools districts are capped at 10-percent, said Guy. The limits apply to the first year immediately following reassessment, Guy said.
A countywide reassessment would likely impact taxes in municipalities that rely on the county's assessment to levy their own property taxes, like Bridgeville, said Guy.
Properties within municipalities could have two assessments; one from the county and one from the municipality. Each would use their own assessment for property taxes.
Bunting's letter also calls on the county to consider a non-resident tax to cover the costs of police and public safety. On Tuesday, Bunting said a referendum process may be more appropriate where taxpayers in individual fire districts could chose their contribution for services.
Given the number of state offices up for election this year, Bunting said he does not expect an answer soon. However, he said it is important to start the discussion.