Wilmington, New Castle County at odds over tax reassessment lawsuit

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki (left) and New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer were all smiles Wednesday night at opening night for the Delaware Blue Coats at the city’s new sports and concert facility, but are locked in a dispute over the thorny and expensive issue of property tax reassessment. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki (left) and New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer were all smiles Wednesday night at opening night for the Delaware Blue Coats at the city’s new sports and concert facility, but are locked in a dispute over the thorny and expensive issue of property tax reassessment. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

It’s been nearly four decades since New Castle County has reassessed property.

As part of a larger lawsuit against the state over school funding in Delaware and an allegedly  antiquated system that deprives poor kids of their constitutional right to an adequate education, the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware sued the county last year.

The civil rights group argued that New Castle County’s failure to reassess properties since 1983 has meant school taxes are distributed inequitably. The ACLU also sued Delaware’s other two counties, Sussex and Kent, for failing to reassess since 1974 and 1987, respectively.

Now the city of Wilmington is seeking to join the ACLU-led suit, triggering a rare dispute between the city and New Castle County.

When property is reassessed, the government doesn’t get more tax money – though some property owners pay more in taxes while others pay less. The idea is to have a tax bill based on the “true value in money” of a property. Over the years, those values can change significantly.

Wilmington is part of the county, and this week Mayor Mike Purzycki urged Chancery Court to order the reassessment. He said the county has ignored its constitutional obligation for 36 years. The last reassessment was done when Purzycki was a member of County Council.

“There has just been a continued reluctance to do a reassessment,’’ Purzycki told WHYY. “Over that time, they should have done three reassessments. As time goes by, you find that the disparities in the distribution of the tax burden are so unfair that they just beg for a solution.”

Purzycki’s move triggered a rebuttal from county executive Matt Meyer, who told WHYY the city was seeking to waste taxpayer money in litigation.

Wilmington can reassess its own property, said Meyer, who added that a countywide reassessment could cost up to $25 million over three years and strain county finances – as well as anger taxpayers whose tax bills increase.

“Simply to sue” the county to pay the total cost, “that’s not very productive,’’ Meyer said. “If we sit around a table and really work hard at this, we can see who can contribute what. Not only how can we figure out how to reassess one time, but we can put in place a system so that there’s regular assessment.

“So that 20, 30, 40 years from now, our successors and their successors aren’t dealing with this same problem again,” he said.

Purzycki countered that the legal and financial burden to conduct the assessment is squarely on the county, since school taxes are based on county tax assessments.

Despite their dispute over reassessment, Purzycki and Meyer, who are both lawyers, exchanged pleasantries and even posed together Wednesday at opening night of the city’s new basketball arena for the Philadelphia 76ers’ minor league team, the Delaware Blue Coats.

Meyer said he and Purzycki will continue to be friendly, despite their professional and political disagreement.

“I think it’s going to happen,’’ the county executive said of the long-delayed reassessment. “But I think different governments suing each other will certainly not be part of the solution.”

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