Initiative and referendum could bring county parks to Sussex

This sign thanks local voters for approving a tax levy to finance parks and trails in the Columbus area of Ohio. BY DENNIS FORNEY
July 26, 2013

When I see signs - like the one accompanying this week’s column - in other parts of the country, it makes me wonder why we don’t do something like this in Sussex County. This sign refers to the Metro Parks system of parks trails in Ohio around Columbus, and the voter-approved tax levy that funds it.

Ohio has been in the bicycle and pedestrian trails business for decades. It won’t be long before its system includes a continuous trail from Cincinnati in the southwest corner of the state up through Columbus and on to Cleveland and Lake Erie in the northeastern part of the state.

Delaware is also working on a great system of interconnecting trails. From what I understand, the Legislature this year added another $3 million to the trails initiative. That’s on top of several more million in the previous two sessions. Those initiatives do so much. They give us more reasons to be outside and active; they provide construction and ongoing maintenance jobs; they draw more people to our area for the continued benefit of our vital tourist economy, and they provide safe and enjoyable transportation alternatives.

So who pays for these parks and trails? We, the people, do. One way we pay is through the tax dollars that our elected leaders choose to allocate to these initiatives. The levy system mentioned on the Ohio sign is another way that trails and parks can be financed. Here’s what happens: groups of people get together and say, “We’d like some trails and parks.” They then go the initiative and referendum route as a direct way to raise funds that can only be used for those purposes. They propose a certain tax increase for, say, parks and trails, and then put that proposal directly to the people on the November ballot for an up-or-down vote. Groups campaign for these initiatives just like they campaign for candidates. The big difference is that the vote in this case says exactly what the money will be used for as opposed to voting for candidates and hoping they make that decision.

Sussex County, unlike many other of the nation’s counties, has no county-operated parks and recreation department. Using the initiative and referendum system could get us on that path. Sussex County Council members for many years have shown great reluctance to raise taxes for any purpose. The beauty of the initiative and referendum system is that it gives the people certainty as to what a tax increase would be used for and gives them the power to enact it themselves rather than waiting for a reluctant council to act.

A few years ago Rob Tunnell spoke at one of the Today and Tomorrow conferences sponsored by Del Tech. He mentioned the fact that Sussex had not raised property taxes for many years and took pride in that. But, he said, think of all the opportunities we may be missing to improve our county because council members won’t consider raising taxes. Those comments have stayed with me. Those comments and the sign he has posted inside the impressive clubhouse he built for his Baywood Greens golf course complex: “Exclusively Public.”

Those who would like Sussex to be more proactive in terms of preserving open space and providing parks and trails have to just keep leaning in that direction.

Meanwhile we can count our blessings that we have a General Assembly and an administration committed to a healthier and happier Delaware population and eagerly watch the many trail initiatives in Delaware’s Cape Region coming to fruition.

Still racking up the miles

Becky and I bicycled though Steubenville, Ohio, this week and in a few days will be on the Great Allegheny Passage trail that will carry us from Pittsburgh to Cumberland, Md. From there we will ride the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath to Washington D.C., catch a lift over Chesapeake Bay and then cross Delmarva for the final leg of our trip. Home again, home again, jiggity jog.

George Bunting and I spoke the other day. He said when he came home from Vietnam a few decades back, he put a bicycle ride across the country on his bucket list. “My parents picked me up from Dulles Airport, which was new at the time,” remembers George. “When we crossed the Chesapeake Bay and I started to smell the chicken manure, I knew I was home, and I’ve pretty much stayed here ever since.”

A blog I wrote about a young woman confined to the Wyoming State Penitentiary in the early 1900s for killing her father with a strychnine-laced piece of pie sparked a memory for George. “There was a woman named Mae Carey, I believe, who lived in the Omar area and conspired with her son to kill her brother - or maybe her uncle - to get the proceeds of a life insurance policy. They poisoned the man and killed him and collected the money,” said George. “No one knew it was a murder until a few years later when another one of her sons was caught stealing chickens, or something like that, and told the authorities about what his mother and brother had done. The woman and her son were tried and convicted and sentenced to hang in Georgetown. My grandfather was an undertaker and took them down off the gallows.”

That’s a pretty good example that crime doesn’t pay.

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