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Chancery judge: Counties ‘manufacturing excuses’ over property tax fix

From Delaware Online

The judge overseeing a landmark property tax lawsuit said on Friday that he felt officials from the state’s three counties were “manufacturing excuses” in delaying a resolution to the litigation.

The parties all agree that resolution will be the reassessment of property values used to calculate property taxes statewide, values that Chancery Court Vice Chancellor J. Travis Laster ruled were unconstitutional earlier this year.

But the education activist plaintiffs that brought the suit and Laster disagree with the counties in the form and timing of how that reassessment occurs, according to testimony Friday during a status hearing regarding debate on how to fix the system.

The plaintiffs want the counties to end the litigation by agreeing to a four-year plan for reassessing property values, plans that each of the counties commissioned from experts and submitted to the court recently.

But attorneys for the counties on Friday asked the judge not to bind them to those plans and instead to put court proceedings on hold while they explore different ways to do a reassessment. That could include asking the General Assembly to approve laws to govern statewide reassessments in the future.

In response, Laster accused the counties of holding up a plan to fix the problem.

“My perception is that there’s been backsliding going on on the county side,” Laster said.

The disagreement means he will order another trial proceeding over how the court will require the counties fix the tax system, and a final plan for the reassessment may not be sorted out before March or April.

“I am disappointed in where we stand,” Laster said. “I don’t feel like things are going swimmingly.”

In May, he ruled that the lack of a reassessment coupled with the counties’ current methods of assessing property values creates a system unfair to the point it violates provisions in the state’s Constitution that require property owners to be taxed equally. He then put the litigation on hold for several months as the COVID-19 pandemic grew.

In October, each of the counties told Laster they were optimistic about reaching a settlement to finalize a plan for reassessment based on proposals created by reassessment experts that would ultimately yield changes to property tax bills in 2024.

It is unclear from the hearing testimony on Friday why the three counties’ position has changed since October.

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