District 3 Sussex County Councilman Mark Schaeffer said he was surprised when some of his constituents contacted him with concerns about delinquent taxes and sewer charges in the county.
The county is owed $6 million in taxes ($600,000 in property taxes and $5.4 million in school taxes) and more than $852,000 in sewer fees from delinquent accounts older than one year.
Two residents of the Covey Creek community in Lewes spoke to council about the issue during the May 25 meeting. They used an example of a resident in the community who owes more than $5,200 in back taxes and sewer fees.
Joan Tracey, HOA vice president, said the association has sent letters to council members calling on them to ensure that all property owners are paying their property taxes and sewer fees.
“This is unfair to those who pay in a timely fashion. It's a drain on county resources. There should be action taken to right this inequity. It's not fair we are subsidizing those who cannot or will not pay their fair share,” she said.
Schaeffer said it's paramount to address the issue. “I told President Mike Vincent I have to give these people an answer. They called me with a legitimate concern,” he said. “I'd like to get it resolved at the next meeting. It's come to a point where something has to happen.”
The item is included on council's Tuesday, June 8 agenda.
With a push from county council, the county did get serious about collecting back taxes and fees in 2007 when it passed a clean-hands ordinance. Under the ordinance, residents cannot obtain building permits or land-use applications unless all county financial obligations, including property taxes, are paid.
Then in 2009, council enacted changes to its collections policy, including hiring a collections manager. At that time, according to former County Administrator Dave Baker, $1.4 million was owed in delinquent sewer and water fees along with $900,00 in delinquent property taxes and $6 million in school taxes. He said more than 1,100 payment accounts had been set up.
Changes to the policy included posting a list of delinquent tax accounts on the county website and a letter from the county attorney as the first correspondence to a delinquent taxpayer.
The list is still published on the county website, sussexcountyde.gov, under the collections department heading. The list of 1,033 delinquent accounts includes amounts ranging from $43,180 to $3,603.
Schaeffer said there appears to be a hands-off policy on collecting back taxes. “Over the years, the path of least resistance has been taken. It should be enforced,” he said. “There is a concern about displacing people, but I'm not looking to displace people from their homes.”