"One man (New Castle, Del., County Executive, Chris Coons) thought property taxes should be hiked almost 50 percent."
Christine O'Donnell on Monday, October 11th, 2010 in a campaign video
Christine O'Donnell ad accuses Chris Coons of proposing property tax hikes totaling 50 percent
The latest ad from Republican Christine O'Donnell is set up like a trailer for a horror or an action movie, complete with a deep-throated voice-over heightening the suspense.
The bad guy of this "movie"? "The Taxman," aka O'Donnell's opponent in the Delaware Senate race, Democrat Chris Coons.
"In America ... " the voice-over begins as tension-building music swells in the background, "where jobs are being lost and wages cut. In Delaware, where the economy is suffering and families are losing their homes, there is one man who stood against the tide and raised taxes.
"One man who thought a 911 call should be taxed...One man thought property taxes should be hiked almost 50 percent ... One man who was county executive and drove New Castle County on the brink of bankruptcy."
" ... Chris Coons is The Taxman."
We're checking a couple claims in this ad, and in this item, we'll focus on the part, "One man who thought property taxes should be hiked almost 50 percent."
Coons was elected County Executive of New Castle County, Del., in 2004 and has served in that position ever since. Records show that three times -- in 2006, 2007 and 2009 -- Coons proposed property tax increases.
We'll go through each in order.
* In 2006, Coons proposed a 5 percent property tax increase in his 2007 fiscal year budget, raising the average annual tax bill by $16 to $342. Coons' proposal called for a $230 million operating budget, a 7 percent increase over the previous year's spending.
The County Council voted 12-1 for the budget and then voted 9-4 to set the higher tax rate. At the time, Coons said the increase was the first of several small tax hikes needed to help close the gap between spending and revenue, according to a story in the News Journal in Wilmington on May 24, 2006.
* In 2007, Coons proposed a 17.5 percent increase in property taxes, upping the average annual bill by $60 to $402. Coons' budget also included $14 million in spending cuts, achieved through a variety of measures including the elimination of 61 vacant positions, elimination of non-emergency overtime, a pay freeze for 55 executive-branch employees and a greatly reduced long-term budget for capital projects. The $228 million budget -- $2 million less than the previous year -- was the first negative-growth budget in a decade.
"We have made in this budget all the cuts I think we can stand," Coons said at the time.
Coons again said the tax increase was needed to help get the county's deficit under control. For several year, the county had been spending down cash reserves. The News Journal noted then that one of the biggest challenges to the budget was a sharp decline in real-estate transfer taxes revenues -- the county's second-largest source of income -- due to a downturn in the housing market.
The Council voted 8-5 for the budget and tax rate.
* In 2009, Coons unveiled a budget that proposed a 25 percent property tax increase, raising the average tax bill by $100, to about $501. The $228 million budget and tax hike -- approved by Council 8-5 -- also reduced spending by $29 million, the second biggest budget reduction in county history, according to the News Journal. The spending cuts were achieved, in part, by a 5 percent salary rollback for the majority of the county's nearly 1,500 employees; the elimination of 97 unfilled jobs, and the layoff of nine paramedics-in-training.
According to March 18, 2009, story in the News Journal, "The overall budget reflects the impact of the recession, particularly in housing. The county has depended heavily for years on a share of the statewide real estate transfer tax to balance its budget. Revenues from that tax have plummeted as home sales swooned."
Coons explained the rationale for the budget this way: "Rather than taking an extreme approach that either slashes the county work force or that dramatically raises taxes beyond what our community can fairly bear, I am taking a balanced middle course," he said. "One that asks for shared sacrifice from all who deliver our county services and all who benefit from them."
There was no proposed property tax increase for next year's budget. But the three property tax hikes proposed by Coons, and approved by Council, resulted in a net increase of 54 percent.
During a debate last month, Coons defended the tax increases, saying that without them he would have been forced to lay off police and close parks and libraries.
The recession wreaked havoc with county budgets around the country, and you can agree or disagree with the way Coons proposed to handle things in New Castle County. But the fact is, as County Executive, Coons did propose almost 50 percent worth of property tax increases. He also cut spending during the years with the biggest tax hikes (though overall, the operating budget has gone from $214.5 million in 2006 to $235.5 million in the 2011 budget proposal).
Our only beef with the claim in the O'Donnell ad is the whole "one man" theme. "One man who stood against the tide and raised taxes," the ad says. " ... One man thought property taxes should be hiked almost 50 percent." In fact, all of Coons' budget proposals were approved by a majority of the County Council. And so we knock the ad's claim down to a Mostly True.