to return for a second round
exemptions for seniors and disabled persons have been given a
reprieve, but County Council members indicated they'll be
receptive to a revised proposal to significantly reduce the
benefits and tighten eligibility to receive them.
"I'll be back shortly with
another piece of legislation. ... Sooner or later this Council
is going to have to put up or shut up," George Smiley told his
colleagues. "Sooner or later we have to make the tough decisions
to bring this county to fiscal responsibility."
"This isn't gone," Council
president Paul Clark said of the idea of restricting exemptions.
"We don't have to do it now, but it's going to happen
Smiley, who chairs Council's
finance committee, sponsored the measure which, among other
things, would have reduced seniors' exemption from the first
$50,000 of assessed residential property value to $32,000 and
the ceiling on income to qualify for the exemption from $50,000
to $22,500 for single applicants and $27,500 for married couples
who jointly own a house.
Smiley announced at a finance
committee meeting several hours before the proposed ordinance
was to have come to a vote at Council's semi-monthly plenary
session that he was withdrawing it.
Other than to say that he
intended to "rework" the measure to include some
suggestions he has received, he did not give a reason for
pulling it. It appeared to observers, however, that he did not
have the seven votes required for passage and that he felt
constituent pressure was the reason.
His surprise announcement touched
off a lively discussion at the committee meeting -- during which
it would seem that the idea of restricting tax exemptions in
light of what has been called a looming county government
financial crisis has nearly unanimous support. All 13 Council
members are on all standing committees and all were present for
the finance committee meeting.
two Council members --
Stephanie McClellan and Robert Weiner -- raised specific
objections saying that, if enacted, Smiley's ordinance faced a
challenge based on the constitutional principle of equal
protection. It would have treated differently present recipients
of benefits, future recipients and applicants whose house is
assessed for more than $125,000.
They and almost every other
member praised Smiley for taking leadership on the issue. There
were several references by different Council members during the
conversation to making proverbial tough decisions, but no one
advocated doing so right away.
In sharp contrast to what
happened at the afternoon committee meeting on Sept. 11, there
was no discussion after Smiley made the withdrawal announcement
which counted at the evening plenary session. The latter,
however, did not draw a crowd, as had been expected after the
proposed ordinance received media publicity. Committee meetings
also are open to the public.
On the other hand, the proposal
did attract considerable telephone and e.mail response directed
at the Council members. One aide said the volume came close to
matching what was generated most recently by the highly
controversial accessory dwelling unit legislation, which
eventually was enacted by a one-vote margin.
Smiley said the public response
clearly illustrated that "the majority of residents of New
Castle County have no idea how this government functions ...
people don't understand what we're doing."
He said conversations he held
with callers demonstrated that residents do not understand such
basic things as the differences between county and state law,
what services county government provides and the limitations
imposed by state law on how to raise money to pay for them.
He and Clark said many of the
messages they received were abusive. Smiley said he was willing
to take abuse "as long as I know what I'm doing is right."
Penrose Hollins, the
longest-serving member of Council and co-sponsor of the
proposed ordinance, chided his colleagues for taking a political
approach to significant issues instead of viewing them
"We can't always wave a flag and
see how the wind is blowing," he said. While voting to provide
politically popular tax exemptions and increasing them "is easy
to do," a time comes to take unpopular positions in order "to
steer New Castle County on the right course."
He said "no other county [in the
nation] has an exemption program as liberal as ours," adding
that it "has gone far beyond anything that is reasonable."
"Folks from other states come
here to retire because of the significant difference in taxes,"
Jea Street said.
"Target the benefit to give it to
people who need it," John Cartier said. "A lot of seniors aren't
Smiley did not say how soon he
intends to introduce a new version of the proposed ordinance.
The one he withdrew would have applied to exemptions for the
fiscal year beginning July 1, 2008. Eligibility is determined as
of June 1. A like provision in the new measure would mean that
only those now receiving exemptions under present law would be
'grandfathered' to continue doing so.
In a separate matter, William
Tansey introduced a proposed ordinance that would require a
three-fourths majority vote in order to enact any increase in
the property-tax rate. A three-fourths majority is 10
affirmative votes. He previously withdrew a version of the
measure that would have modified Council rules to that effect in
favor of one incorporating it as a provision in the county law