Local state legislators hosted one more “Coffee’s on Us” meeting on Dec. 11 before really diving into the holidays and the new legislative session of 2018-2020.
Education and water issues (both stemming from growth) were the hot topics when state Sen. Gerald Hocker (R-20th) and state Rep. Ron Gray (R-38th) invited constituents to ask questions and share concerns at an informal coffee in Clarksville.
Several newcomers from “the gray wave” said the rural, quiet lifestyle was the deciding factor for retiring to Sussex County, not just low taxes. They said they hoped the State and County governments will remember that in future development plans.
Hocker and Gray both said growth is the No. 1 issue for the next few years, and it impacts both education and housing in low-lying areas.
As the new Senate Minority Leader, Hocker unequivocally supported the upcoming referendum that the Indian River School District is planning for Feb. 5. The public will vote on whether to increase property taxes for a new school and more classrooms, plus staff, maintenance and supplies for those new spaces.
Retirees in coastal Delaware don’t necessarily see a bunch of new young people running around their housing developments or oceanfront neighborhoods. But Hocker said those retirees still bring people here.
“Retirees need services. When you have services, it brings new employees [from nurses to shopkeepers], younger families that have children. It’s a cycle. It’s not just retirees moving here,” Hocker said.
“The numbers are going up, and they’re busting at the seams at the facilities, too,” Gray said of overcrowding in the schools.
Some people complained about immigration, with many Hispanic families moving to Sussex County for agriculture jobs. Someone even accused immigrants of not paying taxes.
“If they’re working, they get a paycheck — they do [pay taxes],” Gray countered.
Meanwhile, developers do not pay impact fees for education, although more people have been calling for such contributions, which would be a matter for Sussex County, not State government.
Sussex County property values have not been reassessed in decades, so the assessed value of properties is much lower than the market value. If the County or State reassessed property values, they’d have to adjust the actual tax rate, too, so that tax payments wouldn’t skyrocket. Also, Sussex County doesn’t actually fund the schools — it’s just the collections agent for the schools.
“I feel we owe it to our children to give them the best education possible,” said Hocker.
One educator pointed out that good school districts positively impact property values, while another suggested that it’s easier to educate a child now than to incarcerate them in 10 years.
Water in the basement
The high water table in Sussex County is problematic for many residents, especially as more people build homes and increase impervious surface coverage.
Several people complained of flooding, especially as new development comes. People rely more heavily on sump pumps, humidifiers and — in a severe case at Bear Trap — a whole new HVAC system.
In Sussex, buildings must have a stormwater drainage plan that doesn’t impact their neighbors. But Gray said it’s possible that existing home previously drained to their neighbors’ empty lots, so they lose that benefit when the neighbor develops.
Tax ditches should provide flood relief, but the management boards garner few volunteers, and are reluctant to increase the related household tax (typically a few dollars from each neighboring property). But the current tax ditch revenue is far too little to actually maintain the channels, Hocker said.
(Tax ditch information is online at https://www.sussexconservation.org/services/heavy-equipment/tax-ditch-ma... and http://www.dnrec.delaware.gov/swc/Drainage/Pages/TaxDitches.aspx.)
Although Gray said he stood by the findings of the Clean Water & Flood Abatement Task Force, he said he disagreed with a tax per household and business to fund projects for water cleanup and flood reduction. The proposed tax of HB 270 died in committee, so it would have to be reintroduced in a new bill for the new legislative session.
The legislators touched on other topics, including traffic signals; backyard wind turbines; sand dune crossings; Delaware’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI); and the new cashless toll on Route 301 (New Castle County) that collects fees by EZ-Pass, or by mailing bills to the vehicle’s owner.
Gray also encouraged people to consider volunteering for local programs, such as Meals on Wheels and mentoring in the elementary schools.
“Just remember you don’t have to wait for these coffees,” to share questions and concerns with the local legislators, Hocker said.
Contact information for all state senators and representatives.is online at http://legis.delaware.gov
By Laura Walter