Kent lodging tax repeal effort begins

DOVER — A Senate committee on Wednesday released to the full chamber legislation that would repeal a lodging tax in Kent County.

Although the tax has not taken effect, a bill approved by the General Assembly in June allows Levy Court to set a charge of up to 3 percent for stays at hotels and motels. Controversially, the measure directs the proceeds to the DE Turf sports complex, a nonprofit in Frederica.

The bill approved last year authorized the complex to use the funding “to remain competitive by advertising, promoting, and providing incentives for use of the facility, to establish a program to benefit youth by providing to youth organizations and scholastic institutions the opportunity to use its facility at reduced cost, and to maintain, improve, and support the facility through the payment of costs, expenses, and associated debt.”

But while backers of DE Turf said the estimated $950,000 in collections would be crucial to bringing tournaments to the county by offering five- or six-figure “bid fees,” many protested the bill is unfair. Opponents argued the measure would hurt hotels and should not direct tax collections to a nongovernmental entity.

The main sponsor of June’s bill, Sen. Trey Paradee, has also come under criticism because his brother, John, was on the board of directors for DE Turf.

Sen. Paradee, a Dover Democrat, said Wednesday his legislation is a “reset.” The bill would undo the authority given to Levy Court, requiring the county to formally request enabling legislation if it wants the tax.

He has maintained he was unaware his brother was on the board and described notions the measure was intended in part to benefit his family as absurd.

“If I made any mistake, it’s that I wanted to be a hero,” he said Wednesday. “I wanted to help my community.”

Sen. Paradee said he was approached by DE Turf officials, who said the measure had support from Levy Court, after an attempt by Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, to put the lodging tax language in the capital bond bill failed.

John Paradee resigned from the board earlier in November, citing a “patently false and recklessly irresponsible narrative.”

Less than five minutes of discussion took place on the bill in the Senate Elections, Government & Community Affairs Wednesday, with Sen. Paradee doing almost all the speaking.

The bill could come before the Senate today.

County Administrator Mike Petit de Mange said Wednesday he’s unaware of any plans to request the tax be put back in place if it is repealed.

The complex, which opened in the spring of 2017 after years of planning and dreaming, saw 102,000 visitors who generated an economic impact of around $31 million in 2018, per DE Turf officials.

Prior attempts to contact DE Turf executive director Chris Giacomucci and board chairman Bill Strickland about the impact the loss of the lodging tax revenue would have on the complex were unsuccessful.

Dogs at eateries

The House Administration Committee approved with ease legislation that would allow dogs on restaurant patios and in beer gardens, a long-standing practice that’s technically against state food safety regulations. The Division of Public Health began cracking down on dogs at restaurants over the summer, prompting an outcry from many dog lovers and restaurant owners.

A bill from House Speaker Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, would allow owners to choose whether to permit leashed dogs on their premises. Pups still could not be brought indoors.

While DPH proposed modifications in December, Rep. Schwartzkopf wants to codify the language in state law.

The measure could be voted on as soon as today.

Court of Chancery

The Senate also confirmed Paul Fioravanti Jr. as the newest member of the illustrious Court of Chancery. He spent the past 20 years with the Delaware law firm Prickett, Jones & Elliott P.A. focusing on corporate and commercial litigation.

While the nomination sailed through, about 10 people came by Legislative Hall to protest the selection of Mr. Fioravanti. Some have said the courts need more diversity, noting just one black Delawarean has ever sat on the Court of Chancery, and a handful of demonstrators stood outside the capitol Wednesday with signs calling for greater diversity.

Ralliers carry signs for diversifying Delaware’s judiciary at Legislative Hall on Wednesday. Delaware State News/Marc Clery

The effort was sponsored at least in part by Citizens for a Pro-Business Delaware, a group that has an axe to grind with the Court of Chancery over rulings regarding the company TransPerfect. The organization has run commercials bashing the judiciary and Delaware officials, arguing the Court of Chancery, one of the most respected arbiters of business-related conflicts in the country, is biased.

Delaware officials have shrugged off the criticism as untrue and unfair.

Gov. John Carney said Wednesday “diversity has been a high priority” for his administration and noted he can only choose between applicants recommended to him by the Judicial Nominating Commission. He selected Mr. Fioravanti earlier this month to succeed Tamika Montgomery-Reeves, who was appointed to the Supreme Court.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.