Lewes council to vote on charter changes May 22

Public agrees with some, concerned about assessment
May 19, 2023

Proposed changes to the Lewes charter are in the final stages before being sent to the General Assembly for approval.

Lewes Mayor and City Council will vote on amending the charter to allow the city to borrow larger amounts of money without voter approval, increase the threshold for necessary bidding, increase the tax ceiling, adopt Sussex County’s assessment figures, update sidewalk-repair rules and impose penalties for delinquent taxes.

Residents are largely in support of some of the changes, believing they are appropriate measures in the current economy. Increasing the threshold required to put out a request for proposal from $25,000 to $50,000 received unanimous support from council. Officials explained vendors haven’t been submitting for lesser contracts and inflation has driven more projects above the threshold. 

What appeared to be a sticking point for most attendees at an April public hearing was the increase in the total bond indebtedness the city could take on up to $5 million without voter approval.  Former Councilman Dennis Reardon believed $5 million was too high without voters being involved and worried about people who ultimately pay the bill not having a say. He was also concerned about the proposal to increase the total amount the city was allowed to borrow against anticipated revenue, but that figure in the proposal is capped at $5 million as opposed to 10% of the aggregate assessed real property value in Lewes.  

The proposal to change the cap on bond indebtedness from 25% of the total assessed value is not on the resolution posted May 8. City Manager Ann Marie Townshend said they made changes to the resolution based on public comments. 

Former Mayor Jim Ford wrote in favor of increasing the threshold for referendum-free bond borrowing. Ford echoed the concerns of others when he requested to remove language that would allow borrowing to meet or defray the cost of routine municipal expenses, believing it too broad. Ford noted the continuing increase of capital expenditures and said the move should free council to make important financial decisions that the democratic process has put them in charge of making. 

Lewes Planning Commissioner Bob Heffernan said the nature of bonds lends itself to borrowing larger amounts, but he believes voters should be involved.

“Even at $10 million, investors will require higher interest rates due to limited liquidity,” Heffernan said.

Mayor Andrew Williams noted throughout charter change discussions that the city would likely only pursue bonds for larger-priced items. Heffernan said the city needs the ability to borrow smaller amounts of money quickly but with voter approval. Heffernan noted the potential to purchase open space, and city hall upgrades down the line, among other expensive projects. He proposed the charter revision allow the city to borrow $500,000 to $5 million through the passage of a council resolution and an affirmative vote from residents. Heffernan also suggested the cap be the proposed $5 million for such borrowing. 

Former Councilwoman Bonnie Osler was the first to publicly discuss concerns regarding the adoption of county assessment figures. Ford and Heffernan joined Osler in supporting an assessor who does not live in the city, a current requirement, but opposed ceding control to the county. The proposal would eliminate city-level assessment appeals if the Sussex County assessment is chosen. 

Following concerns from the public, officials proposed a tax limit of 0.5% of the full assessed value of land and improvements or $5 million, whichever is greater. The formula was proposed to ensure future councils can keep in line with economics, and the $5 million was added in case property values plummet due to a disaster, reducing the cap to an unfeasible amount. 

Clarifying the notice requirements and procedures for repairing city sidewalks has been proposed. While public notice is required when sidewalks need repair, Townshend said there is currently no direct-contact requirement with the owner. The current policy in Lewes is to require property owners to pay for repairs done on sidewalks that their property fronts. Officials are reviewing possible changes to the sidewalk policy, but the proposal relates to notice and procedure.

The proposed changes are slated for a possible vote during council’s meeting at 6:30 p.m., Monday, May 22. 


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