Lewes may adopt Sussex County assessment figures

Charter change would double tax ceiling
March 14, 2023

Former Lewes Councilwoman Bonnie Osler sees a bad moon rising in Lewes. 

During mayor and city council’s February workshop, Osler took time to let officials know she sees trouble on the way with charter change proposals dealing with taxes: One is the formula to arrive at the tax amount, while the other is the limit placed on the city to collect tax revenue.

As Sussex County performs its first property assessment since 1974, Lewes is hoping to allow for adoption of the county’s figures. Should Lewes choose not to use the county’s assessment, the city would likely hire someone outside of the city to perform an assessment. Anticipating an increase in tax revenue due to home improvements, updated assessments and more homes coming into the city, council is requesting a charter change to increase the tax ceiling from $3.5 million to $7 million. 

The proposals were discussed Feb. 23.

In an exchange between Osler and City Manager Ann Marie Townshend, it was noted that the city’s previous assessor was a real estate agent who moved out of city limits. The charter states the assessor shall be a bona fide freeholder or leaseholder of property in Lewes. A change to the charter would not only allow for the assessor to be a qualified person or firm located anywhere, but it would reserve the right for council to adopt county assessments.

“If you go that route, you could well be not just adopting the assessments of the county, but forgoing any local review of those assessments,” Osler said. “I think it's a very dangerous road to go down because I don’t think those assessments are going to be fair.”

Osler said she believes the county formula is unfair to coastal residential properties. She thinks when the adjusted taxes are finally billed, there are a lot of people who will not be able to afford to live in the area.

If adopted, council could still hire someone to keep control local. Officials agreed that if the city does hire someone, that person or firm would need knowledge and understanding of local dynamics.

Tax limit

During the Greater Lewes Civic Coalition’s State of Lewes forum at the Lewes Public Library, Mayor Andrew Williams discussed increasing the tax ceiling, set at $3.5 million. The charter states the city does not have the power to collect tax revenue beyond that figure. Townshend said improvements to properties are approaching the limit.

“We’re coming right up against this $3.5 million just by people improving their properties. We also know Lewes Waterfront Preserve is going to be built out; Olde Town at White’s Pond, that’ll be built out; and Fisher’s Cove, that hasn’t come in yet,” Townshend said.

A proposal to double the collection limit to $7 million is on the table. Osler said she is concerned because she believes taxes are supposed to be revenue neutral to the taxing authority. To her, this request feels like the city is going to go with the county’s assessment. She said the city will save money, but it will force people who are on limited or set incomes to make difficult decisions. Doubling the limit is excessive, she said. Coupled with the possible loss of local authority over the assessment values, Osler said she foresees problems.

Mayor and city council did not take action regarding the charter changes during the workshop and will resume discussions at future meetings.


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