DelTech renews push for statewide property tax

 

DOVER — Despite efforts falling short last year, Delaware Technical Community College remains committed to a bill that would establish a statewide property tax to be used to fund college construction projects.

The college, which supports about 14,000 students across its four campuses, is receiving $6 million for construction and improvements this fiscal year and was recommended the same sum by Gov. Jack Markell for next year.

Its annual capital funding is always equal to what the University of Delaware and Delaware State University receive, although the community college regularly shoots high — it requested $14.2 million in bond funding for the upcoming year.

Legislation introduced last year would have created a Community College Infrastructure Fund, which college officials have described as a necessity. The bill has the backing of several high-ranking Democratic lawmakers, but it has yet to be discussed on the floor in the General Assembly.

Appearing before the legislature’s budget committee Tuesday, top college administrators continued to push for the bill.

The proposed fund would be filled by a tax on assessed home value, which is based on the worth established by the counties. It is different from market value.

The bill would carry with it a mean cost to homeowners of $7.30 in the first year, increasing by an average of about $2.50 annually over the next six years, according to estimated figures calculated by the college.

The college’s board of trustees would have the power to raise the tax, although it would be capped at 10 cents per $100 of value.

DelTech administrators say the bill follows a structure used by many other community colleges and would help renovate rapidly aging buildings, combating $80 million in deferred maintenance.

But opponents see the proposal as simply another tax increase, one they believe would hurt the public.

Sen. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, said the bill could create pushback from public schools and universities if it becomes law. He would prefer the college explore other options, such as putting more student fees toward construction projects.

Some people have expressed unease over the board, an unelected group, having the ability to affect fee changes.

Minority Leader Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, believes the assessed values need to be updated, which has not been done in decades. Kent lasted updated its property values in 1987, New Castle in 1983 and Sussex in 1974.

Currently, the counties calculate their own assessed values. In Kent, it is determined by multiplying the 1987 market value first by 60 percent and then by the school tax rate, according to the county website.

Rep. Short also is opposed ideologically to the proposed tax and said the state should focus on cutting spending first.

“The tax itself is kind of not in my wheelhouse,” he said Thursday.

The issue arises because the college is dependent on the state for capital funding and so is left to come before the bond committee every year and request more money, President Mark Brainard said Tuesday. Absent a stable long-term funding source, it faces regular uncertainties, he said.

“The ability to (not) do that does not allow us to plan,” he told lawmakers.

With an infrastructure fund, the college would no longer need approved capital funding, freeing up a few million dollars annually, although the legislature’s bond committee still would have a say over projects.

In recent years, DelTech has had to deal with failing boilers, generators and air conditioning units, to go with deteriorating sidewalks and roofs. Dr. Brainard said in June. The college first sought an infrastructure fund in 2006 but lawmakers rejected the idea.

This time around, Dr. Brainard has powerful allies: The bill is backed by the Senate president pro tempore, as well as a co-chair from both the bond and the finance committees.

Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington, is the main sponsor. He’s also one of the leaders of the Joint Finance Committee, and Tuesday, he detailed his support.

“I’m a firm believer it’s foolish to defer necessary maintenance,” he said during the hearing.

Of the college’s 40 buildings spread across four campuses, two-thirds are at least 25 years old. By 2020, half of them will have been in existence for more than 40 years.

Over the past 10 years, DelTech has invested in its campuses an average of $4.2 million per year, well below the industry standard of $12 million, Dr. Brainard said.

While the Democratic majority may be behind the proposal, Republicans are not. Of the 18 co-sponsors, just one is from the minority party.

The fact the legislation is still being discussed after being introduced in June is illustrative, Sen. Lavelle said.

“If they had the votes they would have done it last year,” he said Friday.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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