County eyeing legislation as session end nears

With the remaining days of the 145th Delaware General Assembly dwindling ahead of the June 30 end of the current session, Sussex County Council members this week received a vital update from Deputy County Administrator Hal Godwin as to the status of bills in which the council has an interest.

“Any bill not completed will be terminated,” Godwin noted of the June 30 end of the session, as it will bring to close the two-year term of the current General Assembly. Anything not passed by June 30 will have to be re-introduced come the January start of the 146th General Assembly.

Godwin said several of the bills county officials had been looking at were not moving forward, including a Freedom of Information Act bill that had passed the House but had yet to appear on the hearing list for the Senate Executive Committee, where it currently lies.

Movement was expected, however, on House Bill 33, which would enable the county to utilize the Justice of the Peace Court as an additional venue for enforcing requirements to connect to county sewer and one that officials expect will take less time and money on the county’s part.

“It’s moving along well,” Godwin said. “It passed the House and it’s in the Senate. I hope to have it on the Senate agenda today,” he said on June 8, noting it could also come up on June 10 if not on June 8.

Godwin cautioned council members over Senate Bill 240, which adds cats to a list of animals that, if injured or killed by a dog on the animal’s owner’s property, would result in the dog being added to the state’s “dangerous dog” list and for the dog and owner to have to go through a hearing process that could result in the dog being required to be restrained or to be put down.

That list already includes a variety of small domestic animals, as well as poultry.

Godwin said his concern over adding cats to the list of victim-animals meriting a “dangerous dog” designation was in the timing of the change.

“We haven’t completely adopted all the dog-control ordinances,” he reminded the council of the Jan. 1 handing over of responsibility for dog control from state to county officials. “It’s bad timing.”

Godwin further noted controversy about the whole issue of adding cats to the list.

“We all know that one of the things dogs love to do is chase cats,” he said.

Godwin recommended the legislation be considered next year, after the county drafts ordinances based on existing requirements for dog control.

“The dog has to come into the cat’s yard and kill the cat,” Councilman Michael Vincent observed, “so it has to be running loose?”

If the attack takes place on the dog’s owner’s property, Godwin said, “Then it’s not an issue.”

“I haven’t taken a position,” he noted, also letting the council know that a bill had been introduced to add cats to leash law requirements, though it “hasn’t gone anywhere.”

Likewise goes HB 194, the so-called “casino bill” that would expand the availability of table games to potentially include sites in Sussex County. “I believe it will not go anywhere this year,” Godwin said.

Godwin said SB 265, which is designed to deal with complaints over normal agricultural practices that impede the ability to do that work, was also still being considered, with a committee hearing this week.

A complaint about a dust cloud from the unloading of crops generated the legislation, Godwin noted. “But it appears there is an ongoing problem with this facility in Townsend.”

Two of Godwin’s bills of concern had not yet been introduced as of June 8. One would directly affect the county and was generated as a result of staff suggestions. The bill would adjust the county’s tax warrant or property tax billing schedule, to shrink the window between billing and the payment deadline for those taxes and thus reduce problems that can happen in between.

“We close the tax books in February or March,” he explained, “and taxes are paid in July. That’s a large window of time,” he said, for such things as property sales or death of the owner to impact who should be receiving the tax bill. “We have to find the new owner and bill them,” he said.

The recommended date for the closure of the tax assessment books under the proposal would be June 30, according to County Administrator David Baker, who noted that the assessment deadline is currently April 30 and that tax bills are based on the information the county has as of that date.

“If they complete a sale on May 31, they will not get a tax bill for the new house, even though they wouldn’t get tax bill until July,” Baker explained. With the change, the county can bill property owners as of June 30, reducing the likelihood of confusion and additional administrative work because of a new owner.

Officials said they believed the large window had been designed to allow for hand-processing of tax bills in the days before computers and that the school districts – which receive funding from taxes assessed alongside county property taxes – had no problem with the proposed change.

Godwin said he would be working to get the change introduced in a bill, even though it was late in the session to do so – providing the council supported it.

“What reason would there be not to do this?” Deaver asked rhetorically.

Introduced on June 8, Godwin said, was a bill to amend state code as to how the county appoints members of the Planning & Zoning Commission. The change is a housekeeping measure, replacing the words “representative district” with “council district,” to accurately reflect the county’s government system. Godwin said the bill had sponsors lined up, with bipartisan support. “We should be able to get it done.”

The issue hit one snag on Tuesday, though, as Godwin had not included the county Board of Adjustments alongside the P&Z and the language in question is contained in both sections of the state code. Godwin said he would work to have the draft legislation changed or amended to include both bodies.

Godwin also referenced a series of “housekeeping ag bills,” House Bills 402, 403, 404, 405, 406 and 407, which were designed to make a range of minor changes, such as moving sections of code relating to the management of emus from the fruit-growers code to animal-growers code.

“It looks like they’re moving through as they should,” he said.

Godwin noted also that the House had approved a bill to increase the length of muskrat trapping season.

Also expected to move forward is HB 426, which would require that any new home built with public financial assistance be built to a universal design requirement that is slightly higher than current county requirements, to make the homes totally handicapped-accessible. Godwin said he had reviewed the bill with the county’s director of building inspections.

Finally, Godwin noted that, though no bill to that effect had been introduced as yet, Gov. Jack Markell and other sources were reportedly expecting legislation to be introduced that would change the Register of Wills and Recorder of Deeds offices from being under county control to state control.

Both offices currently offer a significant supplement to the county’s other revenue streams, generating significant concern over that possibility for county officials and more.

“It hasn’t been introduced or come up,” Godwin noted of such legislation, saying he would inform council members immediately when a bill was introduced, as draft versions can be vastly different from introduced bills.

“That could shoot a multi-million-dollar hole in our revenue stream if it is crafted as some fear,” commented Council President Vance Phillips. “We’re going to have to pass our budget before the end of the legislative session,” he noted. “How will we address that multi-million-dollar hole should that pass?” he asked.

Baker said the first step would be for the county council and finance staff to look at the grant-in-aid portion of the budget, including funding for additional state police officers, sewer districts, fire service, the Sussex Conservation District, the University of Delaware agriculture program and public libraries.

The county will have some time to make those decisions, though, as the bill cannot become law until the 2011 legislative session begins, since it would require a constitutional amendment and that level of change requires an amendment to be passed in two consecutive General Assemblies.