Letter to the Editor: Tax bill sticker shock in Milford

On Aug. 11, 2016, a neighbor emailed me about our upcoming Sussex County tax bill — “Wait until you see your bill; you’re going to crap!” Sure enough, I looked online, and our Milford school tax went up an additional $519 this year. I called the Sussex County Tax Department and was told it is directly due to the passing of the school referendum last spring. Other neighbors’ bills increased an additional $320 to over $500, and even over $1,000 this year.

In the spring of 2015, I had attended two meetings sponsored by the Milford School Board and a parents group called Buccaneer Tomorrow for the purpose of encouraging taxpayers to vote favorably for their school referendum, but it failed because it was too aggressive. The second school referendum in the fall was “reduced” and touted as an “Operational Referendum,” and the citizens were given an approximate figure of an additional $140 on a tax bill for a property assessed at $150,000 (the Milford average property), a statement that was also reported by the media.

Our property is assessed at almost double, rounded to $300,000, so, it made sense my school tax increase would be twice the $140, or $280. I and my neighbors joined the group in ensuring “the children had what they needed for a good education,” and the second referendum passed in October 2015.

The Milford School Board met on Monday, Aug. 15, and about two dozen people were in the audience, 12 from our development. The board was prepared with a presentation, as they knew the word was out, and a financial talk was given by chief financial officer Sara Croce that included overhead charts and figures.

Much of the reason for the excessive tax-rate hike was due to “Unforeseen increases around the special needs children that far exceeded the tax rate that was set in June.”

Three district children apparently cost the school board $100,000 per year per child.
Apparently, at an “open School Board meeting June 20th,” the tax rate was increased — and they got what they asked for in the first referendum that had failed. Slipped by without giving notice to the public.

Having us vote for a referendum satisfies the law, yet, we end up with something we voted down six months earlier!

Our Sussex County tax bills were mailed the day after this Aug. 15 school board meeting, two weeks later than usual, I think on purpose. As far as the next referendum is concerned, the school board was told clearly that no further referendum will ever pass unless something is done. We are now stuck with their blatantly false information and a school tax rate that was increased behind our backs!

From the “MilfordLive” online report of the June 20, 2016, school board meeting:
Sara Croce, chief financial officer, said, “Of the $54.8 million 2016-2017 budget, $1.6 million covered a budget deficit, the remaining funds went to bring back middle school track, add a middle school volleyball program, add back several limited contracts for coaching positions, bring back Odyssey of the Mind at the elementary and secondary school level and provide additional funds to our buildings for student supplies and materials by consolidating some expenses at the district level. The district was also able to provide staff with a two percent local salary increase for 2017 as promised on the referendum ballot.” Also added was an $800,000 slush fund.

Here we are — suggesting that they went back to the original failed referendum and added even more items back in! Ms. Croce continued, “Other benefits district students may see as a result of the passed referendum include additional technology, as well as uniform replacements and equipment reconditioning — things that the district had to cut from the budget in an effort to manage a significant budget shortfall under previous tax rates.”

Do you think it was prudent for the Milford School Board to add in everything possible on the heels of a $1.6 million deficit? Wouldn’t it have been better to add some of these costs next year, since they covered the deficit this year?

A neighbor raises a fact found in the Delaware Code. Mr. S. is asking, “Has anyone read the applicable Delaware Code, Title 14, Chapter 19. This paragraph is interesting and reads as follows: ‘§ 1903 Election preceding levy of tax. Before any school board levies a tax under § 1902 of this title, it shall determine whether the tax shall be on the basis of a specified amount or of a specified rate of taxation and shall call a special election to be held at the polling place or places designated by the Department of Elections conducting the election. There shall be not more than 2 such special elections held during any 12 month period.

32 Del. C. 160, § 54; Code 1935, §2738, 47 Del. Laws, c. 303, §1; 14 Del. C. 1953, § 1903; 55 Del. Laws, c. 86, §1; 69 Del Laws, c. 192, §1; 74 Del. Laws. C. 122, § 41.’ ”

Mr. S. also located this:

“An Act to Provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and efficient system of Free Public Schools.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the State of Delaware in General Assembly met:

Section 1. That the Act entitled ‘An Act to provide for the establishment and maintenance of a general and efficient system of Free Public Schools’, being Chapter 160, Volume 32, Laws of Delaware, be and the same is hereby amended by adding to Section 54 of said Act an additional paragraph as follows:

In addition to the powers in this Section conferred upon a Board of Education or a Board of School Trustees, the Board of Education of any Special School District or the Board of School Trustees of any School District which has for one year levied a local tax under the provisions of this Section, is authorized to continue annually, without a further referendum, to levy such local tax not exceeding in amount the tax originally authorized by referendum. Provided, that in any year not less than two months before the date of the regular school election a number of voters, not less than twenty-five per centum of the number of qualified voters of this district, may petition over their signatures that a referendum be held. In which case the Board of Education or the Board of School Trustees shall proceed to hold an election as heretofore provided in this Section and the result of such election shall be binding until another referendum.” Approved April 17, 1929.

It is time that the Milford School Board be investigated and its financial records audited for the deliberate misrepresentation they proposed over and over again to the taxpayers of Milford.

Gloria Markowitz

EDITOR’S NOTE: The referendum which passed was the third after two failed referendums. On March 26, 2014, a referendum proposing tax increases for both operating expenses and for building a new middle school was voted down. On March 5, 2015, a referendum proposing tax increases for both operating expenses and for building a new high school was voted down. On Oct. 6, 2015, a referendum proposing tax increases solely for operating expenses was approved.

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