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Although the office of county assessor was not created until 1766, its origins date back nearly a century before, where, in the Duke of York’s Laws (1676)1, assessments proportionate to the size of an individual’s estate were required to be made by the constable and eight overseers from the corresponding parish. Thus were the beginnings of taxation for the public good.
In 1740, it was ruled that all freeholders within each hundred would choose one person to be that hundred’s assessor. Subsequently, a yearly meeting was to be held by all eligible justices, eight grand jury men, and all of the elected assessors. This committee was to ascertain all real debts incurred by the county, such as costs of building and repairing courthouses, prisons, and workhouses; destroying wolves and crows; and other services provided for the public good. The total equaled the amount of tax needing to be collected.2
The Clerk of the Peace then directed the constables within each hundred to supply the names of every taxable residing in that hundred, including any freemen or slaves. The assessors would then meet to establish tax rates and amounts, while exempting single persons under 21 or residents with limited means. These lists were then filed with the Clerk of the Peace, who would direct that the tax be collected. The justices at that time were responsible for hearing any grievances and correcting any omissions. On appeals day, one freeholder was appointed as Collector of Taxes and would proceed to collect the assessed taxes and then turn them over to the County Treasurer.3 (By 1766, the workload had increased to the point where the freeholders were required to vote for not only an assessor, but also an inspector, who was responsible for on-site inspections to settle any assessment questions.4)
In lieu of the justices and jurymen, the General Assembly, in 1796, established six individuals in each county to be Commissioners of the Tax. Each assessor, in cooperation with the Recorder of Deeds, was to take an account of the assessments and then report to the commissioners the actual money value of the property in questions, viewing the premises if necessary. The commissioners reported their findings to the Levy Court, which then reported to the House of Representatives, where further analysis took place.5
Responding to apparent abuses in the 1796 charges, the General Assembly in 1816 appointed one commissioner for each county, with powers equal to the local commissioners, to begin a statewide valuation and assessment, which was then to be publicly posted. Three more individuals were to be appointed as a Board of Appeals, to sit in each county and establish fair doctrine.6
By the beginning of this century, all property was to be taxed at real value, with the exception of charitable organizations. One assessor for each Sussex County hundred, one for each New Castle County hundred, one for each representative district in Kent County, and one for each representative district in Wilmington, were responsible for general assessments (valid for four years) as well as annual updates on new residents, building improvements, etc. The Levy Court was charged with appointing two citizens, who, along with the Assessor, comprised a Board of Review of Assessments, which was to hear all assessment appeals. (The Wilmington assessor chaired his board alone.)7
In 1915, the Legislature created a Sussex County Board of Assessment, consisting of three Levy Court appointees with four-year terms. (The Governor appointed three interim members to serve until the formal organization could conduct its first full assessment in 1917.) Their general assessments were valid for six years, but annual updates and adjustments were conducted, posted, and subsequently published. the new procedure involved sending a formal notice of assessment to every taxable, which would then conduct their own self-assessment and respond to the Board. The Board heard its own appeals and was permitted to select suitable assistants to conduct on-site inspections if necessary. The Board was permitted to incorporate any completed municipal tax assessments into its own assessment.8 The Sussex County Board’s term of office was raised to six years in 1917.9
Similarly, in 1917, the Legislature created a Board of Assessment for New Castle County Consisting of four Levy Court appointees with four-year terms. Their duties and procedures were patterned after the aforementioned Sussex County Board of Assessment.10
The Legislature completed its assessment reforms in 1920 when a Kent County Board of Assessment was created, consisting of three members with four-year terms, appointed by the Levy Court. This organization’s duties and procedures mirrored those of the other two counties.11 This Board is still in existence today.
However, reorganizations of county government in New Castle and Sussex Counties, in 1965 and 1969, respectively, changed the structure of tax assessment within those counties. In New Castle and Sussex Counties, the Board of Assessment was abolished and a Department of Finance was created, which not performs the assessments through its Property Tax Division. Concurrently, there was also created a Board of Assessment Review, composed of seven members (six-year terms), six to be appointed by the County Council and one, a chairman, to be appointed by the County Executive. The Board of Assessment Review hears any appeals and constantly reviews assessment procedures of the Department of Finance.12 This process continues today.
1 Duke of Yorke’s Laws, 1676, pp. 9-10
2 1 D.L., ch. 102
4 1 D.L., ch. 107; 45 D.L., ch. 187
5 2 D.L., ch. 98
6 5 D.L., ch. 93
7 1915 Del. Code, ch. 44
8 28 D.L., ch. 79
9 29 D.L., ch. 73
10 29 D.L., ch. 72
11 31 D.L., ch. 14
12 55 D.L., ch. 85
13 57 D.L., ch. 762