In November 2020, Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster ordered all three counties in Delaware to reassess property by 2024 as part of a lawsuit settlement. In May, Laster ruled that the outdated assessments in the three counties violate a constitutional requirement that properties be taxed uniformly. New Castle County last assessed property in 1983, Kent in 1987 and Sussex in 1974. In an effort to provide information to the public, Sussex County held several meetings to explain how the reassessment program would be conducted.
“We are here because a court order, issued by the Chancery Court of the State of Delaware, required us to conduct a countywide reassessment,” Michael McFarland, Senior Project Manager for Tyler Technologies, the company who will be conducting the reassessment, said. “The court held that property values had changed significantly enough over time since the previous reassessment and they were no longer representative of the “true value of money,” which is how the court defines market value.”
Sussex County contracted with Tyler Technologies in June 2021 to conduct the countywide appraisals. McFarland stated that this has led to some concerns among property owners that their taxes will rise considerably, that government will overspend and that the county may discover unknown improvements on their property.
“All three of these fears are understandable,” McFarland said. “First, does the new assessment mean you will pay more in property tax? Not necessarily. A property assessment should reflect its current market value. As market values increase or decrease, assessed values may not reflect these changes. This means that some taxpayers may be paying more than their fair share while others may be paying less. Reassessment does not mean your property value will increase and, even if it does, your taxes may not increase. The purpose of reassessment is to equalize the tax burden across the county.”
McFarland pointed out that 90 percent of property taxes were school taxes, including the district where the property resided as well as Sussex Tech. He also explained that both the county and school districts were capped by law as to how much revenue they could collect when a reassessment took place. For the county, the limit is 15 percent and school districts 10 percent. McFarland provided an example to show how taxes could remain the same even after the reassessment.
“Let’s say your property in 1974 had a value of $25,000,” McFarland said. “After this assessment, it has a value of $250,000, ten times what it was before. In 1974, the tax rate was 0.36, giving you a property tax of $90. In 2024, the tax rate goes to 0.036, resulting in the same $90 in taxes. In general, as taxable value goes up, the tax rate goes down.”
McFarland explained that if unknown improvements are discovered, something that is likely considering the length of time since the last assessment, information will be updated at the county level to be sure all property owners are paying their fair share of property tax.
The project began with aerial imaging of the entire county in the spring of 2021. The next phase, which will begin this fall, will have field inspectors visiting every property in Sussex County to conduct an exterior inspection. Measurements will be taken of any structures, including homes, barns, sheds and other items. The inspectors will not need access to the inside of any homes. Once all properties have been documented, analysis of the data will be conducted. The final phase will be valuation of properties and informal meetings regarding assessments. The final phase is expected to begin in mid-2023 and completed by the end of that year. The new assessments will then be used to compute taxes for 2024.
“Data collectors will wear bright yellow Tyler vests, and all will have Sussex County-issued photo identification,” McFarland said. “They will not call ahead to make appointments, but you will be able to visit our website to see what area they may be working in on any given day. They will ring the doorbell to let you know they are there. If you are not home, they will leave a tag and take the measurements they need. For areas that may be gated or where they are denied access, we may need to rely on aerial photographs to determine the assessment.”
Once the valuations are complete, property owners will have the opportunity to review them via a data mailer that will be sent to the home. McFarland explained that this is a very large project and that mistakes will likely be made. Property owners will have the opportunity to correct any errors before the tax bills are completed.
There were questions about why the county decided to move forward with the reassessment considering the world is still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Todd Lawson, County Administrator, reiterated that the courts ruled that they must complete this by 2024.
“What does the county have planned for those who suddenly find themselves unable to pay their tax bill?” Bonnie Osler asked. “It is possible someone’s tax bill could go up significantly after this and the county needs to have something in place, so a reassessment does not force someone out of their home.”
Lawson stated that there are already programs available for those who may be struggling to pay their property taxes.
“We are concerned about that,” Lawson said. “Council has voiced to staff that we need to be very aware of this. There are several programs available and anyone who is struggling should reach out to the county to see what options we may have available. We absolutely do not want to force folks out of their homes.”
Information on the reassessment for Sussex County can be found at https://empower.tylertech.com/sussex-county-delaware.html. A recording of a Zoom meeting held on September 27 is also available on the website. The recording includes a slideshow that details the process for the reassessment.
Betsy Price is a Wilmington freelance writer who has 40 years of experience, including 15 at The News Journal in Delaware.
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