Ocean View residents get surprise with new tax assessment system

Following the mailing of this year’s property tax bills, the Town of Ocean View has been receiving feedback from some property owners.

For its 2019-fiscal-year budget, the council had previously voted unanimously to increase property tax by 50 percent — down from the 100 percent increase that had initially been proposed. In an effort to save the Town money, they also switched from using the Town’s own assessed values for properties to those of Sussex County.

“The issue of raising Town taxes 50 percent, while controversial, is defensible, and we, the town council, have all given our reasons for why it was necessary. We have not changed our position on the 50 percent increase,” said Mayor Walter Curran this week.

“What has caused great consternation is the second part — switching to the County valuations, which has caught everyone, including this council, by surprise. In many conversations with County officials, among ourselves and in public meetings, we talked about there being some differences from one household to another, but we thought those differences would be relatively minor.

“Furthermore, no one foresaw variances where some households got increases of 100 percent or more and others got a reduction in taxes. That was never the intent of the town council. We felt that the burden would be shared equally amongst all property owners.”

Curran said that for individual households that have requested review of the new assessments, the calculations have all been correct. He noted that a master list is being worked on and should be completed soon.

“The master list will ultimately show a comparison of every property on the Town rolls, between what the 2018 Ocean View valuation and assessment was and what the 2019 County valuation and assessment is.”

Curran said the Town is also looking at the ramifications, both financial and legal, of possibly switching back to its old system of assessments.

“As mayor, my job is to lead, and when the subject of saving the Town $250,000 over five years arose, I said, ‘Let’s investigate it.’ Clearly, we did not investigate thoroughly.

“I accept blame for not doing proper due diligence on the extent of the variables between the two systems, but two wrongs don’t make a right. So, as we proceed on this, we will take whatever time necessary to research and vet every possible contingency before making any further changes.”

It is important to not disrupt the cash flow structure of the Town, he added, noting that tax bills that have been received by property owners “are valid and remain an obligation.”

Councilman Frank Twardzik said he, too, expected the switch to save the Town money.

“We were all under the impression we were saving the Town money,” he said, noting that the switch seemed like a “no-brainer.” “I echo your sentiments, Mr. Mayor.”

“This is just indicative of switching from one system to another…” said Councilman Berton Reynolds. “We need to work going forward. It needs to be corrected.”

Bear Trap resident Kent Liddle said he had seen an 85 percent increase in his tax bill, and that many of his neighbors had seen the same.

“I think it needs to be fair,” he said. “My concern is — which I expressed to Mayor Curran — I think you jumped in really quick… Maybe our system wasn’t really so bad. Frankly, every time I’ve had to deal with the County, it’s always an issue, it’s always a problem.

“In the future, if we wanted to go and protest our tax bill … we have to go to the County now. To me, you are our leadership. That type of reassessment should be handled at the Town level, not at the County level… I hope you follow through. I don’t like the 50 percent. I’ve accepted the 50, but I don’t want to pay 85 percent.”

Ocean View resident Dennis Supik said in breaking down his County tax bill of $1,400, after monies are taken out for schools, libraries, sewer assessments, et cetera, only $144 goes to County administration.

“So I’m paying $144 to run all of Sussex County, and my last tax bill was $1,006 to run Ocean View? … Just a comment: That just kind of seems crazy.”

Resident Ann Scolari said she believed the Town could save money by not having a K-9 unit.

Sgt. Sidney Ballentine said K-9 Hardy is used “all the time.”

“He’s definitely a force-multiplier,” said Ballentine. “People have told us they would’ve ran, but they saw the dog or heard him bark… If we work two days, I call him out at least once to do a scan on a vehicle.”

Ballentine said Hardy is also used outside of town limits, as a County and State asset.

“He’s the only K-9 on this side of the county,” said Ballentine. “He’s utilized to find dementia patients, runaways — not to mention people who run away from traffic stops. For my safety, he’s invaluable.”

Scolari also brought up concerns about the police department’s bicycle patrol program.

“They’re not fully dedicated bike officers,” explained Ballentine. “If you’re going to have concerts in the park, they’ll be more nimble. If you go through the golf course … the bike is silent and, for the most part, they don’t see you coming until you’re right up on them smoking weed or stealing from your car.”

Ballentine said the department’s mountain bikes, as is also the case with its ATV, are not used every day but are an asset to the Town.

“But they are things we spend money on,” said Scolari.

“Yes, ma’am — but if you were injured on the Assawoman Canal and nobody could get to you, and I rode up to you on the ATV and could put you in it, it would be money well spent.”

Property owner Ray Wockley addressed the council to emphasize the importance of seeking financing outside of town limits. Wockley showed the council a map of the municipality and its surrounding area, noting that, while there are 7,561 addresses served by the postal service in the 19970 ZIP code, only 2,900 tax bills were sent out by the Town.

Noting that in the month of May the police department assisted Delaware State Police on 30 calls outside of town limits, Wockley said the Town should be receiving more compensation for its help.

“We should be getting $100,000 from Sussex County.”

Curran said the idea of a regional police force is something the Town is still actively pursuing, but it cannot happen overnight.

“We can make our case, and we’ve been making our case,” said Curran.

Drainage issues in Avon Park discussed

Nicole Kelly of Avon Park had submitted a proposal to the Town asking for financial help to pay for longstanding drainage issues in the development.

Kelly said the development has a “constant drainage issue that gets worse and worse.” By working with the Sussex Conservation District, the Town is eligible for a cost-sharing program that would pay for half of the work — helping eight parcels. The Town would need to agree to pay approximately $6,000 to run piping underground that would tie into a nearby tax ditch.

Curran thanked Kelly for her work and said that, on face value, the idea seems simple. He added that the Town couldn’t agree to the program at that evening’s meeting.

“We have to determine who is responsible,” said Curran, regarding drainage. “From a technical point … all of this is purely personal property. … It’s all in your yards, except where the streets are.

“For that reason, tonight I’m saying no, I’m not going to say yes, as one member of the council here. But I think we need to discuss that in a relatively short timeframe. Going forward, is it worth it to do it, even though it’s technically outside of the scope of the Town’s responsibility?”

Town Manager Dianne Vogel said she has been trying to go through old meeting minutes related to the Avon Park annexation in 2002. Documents from Planning & Zoning meetings from that time were found that indicate that developers Gulfstream and Bob Harris attended meetings, and an ordinance was adopted to bring the development into the Town with “very strict exceptions and costs.”

“Do the taxpayers of Ocean View want to start paying for individual HOAs when there were specifics set out for what would be covered and what wouldn’t? Therein lies where I need help.”

Vogel said she does not have the staff to dig through all the documents to find the information and would love to get some volunteers — perhaps retired librarians familiar with research.

Kelly noted that while the Town has money budgeted for Avon Park drainage projects in 2020, the cost-sharing proposal is only good for six months.

By Maria Counts
Staff Reporter