Rebuttal to Hanson/Legates’ letter
The great thing about America and Dewey Beach is that people can differ over policy issues and yet still work together on other issues. Commissioners Anna Legates and Diane Hanson are now candidates for re-election. We have agreed and worked together on a number of issues.
But we don’t agree with their blocking adoption in July of the proposed gross receipts tax (after a year-long effort by the budget and finance committee) and we are shocked at their voting against even giving the voters the opportunity in a non-binding referendum to indicate if they want the council to adopt a gross receipts tax on Dewey businesses (who now pay only $60,000 a year toward the town’s $2.5 million budget).
This issue is the most important vote the commissioners cast in this council. The town suffers from a lack of stable income sources to pay for basic operations and protect against business lawsuits and no ability to tackle significant infrastructure and management needs. Legates and and Hanson have been criticized for stopping the GRT and have explained their position. We wanted to clarify our position and why we are so disappointed with their vote.
Hanson/Legates feel there's been some confusion on the GRT and information distributed has been incomplete or outdated. Our answer: CPD has not distributed any confusing or outdated information. Three commissioners - Hanson, Legates and Mauler - gave way to the business lobbying to block the GRT. When Commissioner Courtney Riordan, chair, budget and finance committee, at the July 19 meeting realized he could not win a vote on the GRT ordinance, he instead urged the council to merely support a non-binding referendum “polling the people” on whether the council should later adopt a GRT. Council would have no obligation however, to do so. Hanson and Legates rejected the GRT and referendum and the businesses rejoiced. Only Commissioners Riordan and Joy Howell supported the GRT and also giving the public the right to vote on it.
Hanson and Legates based their decision to reject both the GRT and a non-binding referendum because they felt if they passed either, it may impact the lawsuit the business community filed against town and the GRT.
We believe the lawsuit is not a fatal flaw in the GRT. It is a preemptive lawsuit designed to bully the Council and now serves as an excuse to avoid voting on the GRT tax before the election. The budget and finance committee was fully aware of the Highway One lawsuit challenging the town’s right to tax. That is why the GRT ordinance was written to not take effect until after the court rules on Dewey’s authority to tax business interests. It would in no way interfere with the court action. Also, the committee proposal was crafted with the town lawfirm’s research and advice assuring the town it has taxing authority. But again, Hanson and Legates voted to deny the people’s right to be heard in a non-binding referendum on the GRT.
Hanson and LeGates say all commissioners received advice from the attorneys regarding non-binding or binding referendum and three voted no, consistent with the legal advice.
We feel that obviously the legal advice could not have been that compelling, or all five commissioners would have voted identically. And what was voted down was a non-binding referendum, which several attorneys we consulted said no rational judge in the country would use against a town in deciding how to apply the law. So what is the real reason these commissioners voted against a non-binding referendum? And what legal basis did the attorneys use to support advice that a non-binding referendum would negatively affect the outcome of the Highway One lawsuit?
Legates and Hanson cite the fact that Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, speaker of the Delaware House of Representatives put the town on notice based on his legislative attorney’s research, that the town did not have the authority to do this tax and it would be challenged.
We argue that town lawfirms, with four attorneys, are on record saying that they believe the town has the authority to tax and to tax businesses. Noel Primos from one of the two Town law firms and Commissioner Riordan, who is also an attorney, spent months researching whether the town had to go to the Legislature for additional approval on a tax and concluded that we do not. Schwartzkopf did not speak against a non-binding referendum, which was ultimately the issue that was voted down 3-2.
Legates/Hanson contend that the town's financial picture had changed dramatically; the town currently has a $200,000 surplus for FY 2012-13.
We confirmed that there has not been any change in the budget numbers since the committee made its recommendation. Also, a $200,000 surplus from higher transfer taxes, which we can’t control or predict, is hardly comforting. Moreover, the projected surplus of about $67,000 for the current year is an even less adequate cushion.
Legates/Hanson say it would be irresponsible to hold a referendum without sufficient time to inform the public and are concerned about a possible FOIA violation.
The state requires only 20 days notice of ballot issues; we have almost a month before the Sept. 21 election. The GRT has been debated publicly seven years and at two councils meetings in July. A third meeting was suggested by Commissioner Howell for Aug 23 to cure any notice/FOIA issues. This was rejected by Hanson and Legates.
Legate and Hanson applaud the Dewey Business Partnership meeting privately with Town Manager Appelbaum to propose alternatives and say they prefer to act in a spirit of cooperation and community.
We say, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Every time a business tax is about to be adopted, the business groups say they want more input, offer to cooperate, stop the momentum for a final decision, and then later will only support a property tax that has been rejected by the property owners in the past and that taxes homeowners far more than the business entities. Property owners already pay a three percent accommodations tax (almost $400,000). But none of these arguments explains why a non-binding referendum of the property owners is a problem? Now it is just businessmen - with businessman and Town Manager Marc Appelbaum and the big bar business owners huddling in the back room deciding on a tax, if any, with no public input.
Hanson and Legates want to wait until after the election to make a decision on an equitable tax structure. Why wait? Town councils have been working on fair share taxes since at least 2002. The current town commissioners publicly supported business taxes but when the opportunity came to adopt a simple GRT, or even just a non-binding public referendum, they did not live up to their promises and responsibilities. Any future proposal will also be vulnerable to yet another Alex Pires (Highway One) lawsuit, further legal appeals, and yet more excuses. This outcome is very disappointing after the year-long volunteer effort that developed a very fair and reasonable GRT proposal. We think Hanson and Legates need to be straight with the property owners and not hide behind unjustified claims about a court’s reaction to a mere non-binding referendum.
However, we have not lost hope. There is much more good work that needs to be done on behalf of the Dewey Beach property owners. We expect that Diane Hanson and Anna Legates, if re-elected, will tackle other difficult issues to move Dewey forward with resolve, determination, fairness, and transparency. We are particularly concerned about Ruddertowne issues in terms of compliance with the DBE/Town MAR agreement and the Phase Two building. And of course we await next March 1 to see an effective GRT adopted.
Citizens to Preserve Dewey Steering Committee