Seaford looking for an appraiser to conduct thorough reassessment

By Lynn R. Parks

The city of Seaford is looking for an appraiser. Specifically, a professional real estate appraiser, licensed in the state of Delaware, to conduct a thorough reassessment of property throughout the city. The city council Tuesday night approved a request from city manager Dolores Slatcher that the city be allowed to solicit proposals from certified appraisers to do the reassessment. This comes more than two years after city residents protested a citywide "audit" of property values that resulted in hikes in tax bills for nearly 900 landowners. Nearly 30 appeals of those increased tax bills are still pending. A court case that resulted from the audit was decided in favor of the city, but only on procedural matters and only after the judge commended the plaintiffs for trying to have the audit overturned. Part of the complaint filed by property owners Larry Moynihan and Harry Freedman was the fact that Randy Westergren, who conducted the audit, was not a licensed appraiser. They also argued that Westergren used a flawed method and that the fact that he was paid based on the increased property values that he found was illegal. In his ruling, Vice Chancellor John Noble advised the men to pursue appeals of the audit with the city. In November, Moynihan's attorney, Steve Ellis, Georgetown, said that further legal action was still a possibility. "As you know, the court case in Chancery Court is over, and the judge ruled in our favor," Slatcher told the council Tuesday night. "However, in speaking with the litigants, or our attorney speaking with their attorney, it appears that if the city would move forward with getting the whole city reassessed, it would solve where we are right now. We would like to send out this request for proposal, so we can see what it will cost to reassess the city of Seaford, so we can put it in the budget for next year." The city's new fiscal year will start in July.

The council approved Slatcher's request unanimously. But council members balked when she presented city solicitor James Fuqua's recommendation that the 28 pending appeals of the 2004 Westergren tax audit be stayed until the reassessment is completed. Staying the appeals "doesn't make any sense to me," property owner Ted Gruwell told the council. Gruwell appealed to the city after Westergren's audit pushed the value of his Bradford Street home from $108,000 to $133,000. "Three tax periods have gone by that I have paid extra taxes," Gruwell added. "I think that anybody who appealed should have the appeal reviewed now, then you go forward." Slatcher told council members that they could choose to review the still-pending appeals now. "Or you can take the advice of the city solicitor and stay these appeals until the reassessment is done, and work with the new appraiser to take these properties back to 1989 values," she said. Property owners, including those whose bills were changed by Westergren's audit, currently pay taxes based on what the value of their property was in 1989. Councilman Rhea Shannon suggested that the city follow Fuqua's advice. But before his motion received a second, Councilman Mike Vincent suggested that the city get Fuqua's recommendation in writing. Slatcher will bring Fuqua's recommendation to the next council meeting, Feb. 13. Wednesday morning, Moynihan praised the city's move to get a total reassessment. "It's the right thing to do," he said. "It would solve a lot of the problems that have been created with Randy Westergren's illegal audit."

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