Homeowners must wait for full reassessment to appeal

By Lynn R. Parks

Following the advice of the city solicitor, the Seaford City Council Tuesday, Feb 13, voted to stay all pending tax appeals until after a full reassessment of the city is complete. The unanimous vote was over the objections of Seaford resident Ted Gruwell. Twenty-eight appeals, including one filed by Gruwell, are still pending after a 2004 "audit" of the city's tax rolls that resulted in increased bills for nearly 900 property owners. A suit filed over the audit procedure was decided in favor of the city, but only on procedural matters and only after the judge commended the plaintiffs for trying to have the audit overturned. In his ruling, Vice Chancellor John Noble advised property owners Larry Moynihan and Harry Freedman to pursue appeals of the audit with the city. As a result of that ruling, the city council voted last month solicit proposals from certified appraisers to do the reassessment. "It appears that if the city would move forward with getting the whole city reassessed, it would solve where we are right now," city manager Dolores Slatcher said then. After that Jan. 23 vote, Slatcher recommended that the pending appeals be stayed until the reassessment is complete. When Gruwell objected, Councilman Mike Vincent asked that the city obtain a letter from its attorney, James Fuqua, recommending the stay. Slatcher had that letter at Tuesday's meeting. In the letter, Fuqua recommend that the pending appeals be stayed until after the reassessment is completed. After that, "we will have an expert opinion that may contribute to the equitable resolution of the appeals," he added.

Gruwell, who appealed to the city after the 2004 audit pushed the value of his Bradford Street home from $108,000 to $133,000, told the city council Tuesday night that he was confused. "If you're going to do a reassessment, you're talking a year or more down the road," he said. "All that time, 899 people will be paying higher taxes than they should have to pay." Slatcher defended Fuqua's position. And she added that the city's situation is made more difficult because some council members who voted to okay the audit are no longer serving on the board. Councilmen Ron MacArthur and the late Larry Miller are no longer serving and Dan Short, who was mayor at the time the audit was okayed, is now a state representative. Council members Rhea Shannon, Leanne Phillips-Lowe and Mike Vincent were not on the council when the audit was approved. "People have to understand that the city is trying to move forward to resolve an issue that we don't really have our hands around, because all the people aren't with us who were here," Slatcher said. Gruwell also said that it is "impossible" for an assessor to look at a property in 2007 and determine what the value of that property would have been in 1989. City residents pay taxes based on 1989 property values. But Slatcher countered that Sussex County residents pay taxes based on 1974 values. "I don't know what it is, but there has to be a way to do it," she said. "In the county, it is done every day."

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