MILFORD — In a discussion that ranged from COVID-19 to growth to the impending property tax reassessment and its impact on education funding, legislators from Milford gathered Wednesday to talk about the challenges facing the city as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first question during the Legislators Economic Development Luncheon, hosted by the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Milford at Etta’s Catering, concerned the pandemic — what each panelist now knows that they wish they knew prior to the virus’ emergence in the First State.
Kent County Levy Court Commissioner Eric Buckson, who represents the Fourth District, said he would have had legislators take more input from business owners before implementing restrictions.
He noted it’s one thing to apply restrictions, but it’s another to find out exactly how they will affect small-business owners.
He said with the county’s share of American Rescue Plan Act money, Levy Court is planning to assemble committees made up of local people who will help determine the best way to use the money and who to give it to where it can do the most good.
State Rep. Bryan Shupe, R-Milford, echoed Commissioner Buckson’s statements saying the shutdowns gave an unfair advantage to larger, global businesses. He said small-business owners need to be a voice in the rooms where decisions are being made.
If the delta variant of COVID-19 necessitates restrictions again, Rep. Shupe said he’d like to see local legislators more involved in the process of creating restrictions so that they can be a voice for their constituents.
Sen. David L. Wilson, R-Lincoln, agreed, saying larger stores like Walmart should have been limited to selling groceries during the 2020 shutdowns in an effort to lessen the fiscal effect of the pandemic on small businesses.
He was critical of Gov. John Carney for making business decisions without input from local legislators during the state of emergency. Sen. Wilson noted his small business had to close for an extended period of time due to the pandemic.
Milford Mayor Archie Campbell had a different experience from Sen. Wilson’s in terms of communication during the pandemic. He said he and other mayors were on conference calls with each other almost every two days throughout 2020. He spoke about positive collaboration and praised Gov. Carney’s leadership.
“Contrary to what some people think, I think the governor did what he felt he had to do and he also made sure communication was given to all the mayors,” Mayor Campbell said. “It worked out well, I think.”
Turning to a discussion of Milford’s growth, Rep. Shupe said it’s important to remember that as the city’s housing grows, so should its infrastructure, be that roads, water lines or health care.
“You may not think of infrastructure as health, but it’s something that here in Delaware we really need to continue to work on,” Rep. Shupe said.
He said the city can build as many houses as it likes, but if there is not health care in the area, it will lose retirees to other states.
He said there is a state program offered with the University of Delaware for loan repayment to graduates who open up practices in underserved areas.
Rep. Shupe said having an active parks and recreation department contributes to the overall health of the city’s population as well.
Sen. Wilson cautioned against too much growth without proper planning.
“As I look at the infrastructure and what we have in place, it’s easy to sell building permits and to invite people to this golden calf. But I’m telling you that down the road, somebody is going to have traffic jams,” he said.
He said legislators have been debating a bypass to the city since 2007 — although he noted bypasses come with pros such less traffic and cons like potential business routed away from stores.
Commissioner Buckson agreed with Sen. Wilson, saying quality of life has to come with growth. He noted installing or redoing infrastructure can seem messy until it’s been completed.
“Once the infrastructure was in place, and it was done properly, it’s a whole different game,” Commissioner Buckson said.
With the property tax reassessment to be completed no later than 2024 in Kent and Sussex counties, Delawareans are likely looking at higher taxes meant to generate more funding for public education.
Mayor Campbell said Milford residents also are likely looking at more taxes from the city to fund the construction of a police station as well as other city operations and potentially as a result of a referendum in October that would fund renovations and the reopening of the former Milford Middle School.
While he said taxes would be phased in, he said he understands the burden tax hikes puts on citizens.
“Everybody is looking at me like, ‘OK, what’s the answer?’ I don’t have the answer,” he said. “The answer is hopefully the council is doing the right job.”
Commissioner Buckson noted he probably won’t get reelected while Kent County goes through the property reassessment due to the tax hikes it might generate.
“Yes, it’s going to come. It’s a court order. It’s a mandate,” Commissioner Buckson said. “It’s going to be a mess.”
Citing his background in public education, Commissioner Buckson said the state has an allocation problem rather than a funding problem.
“The formula they use to distribute funds up and down the state is where the problem is,” Commissioner Buckson said. “It’s a tough ask because you’re going to take money from (Cape Henlopen School District) and move it up to (Christina School District) and the speaker of the house isn’t going to let that happen, in my opinion.”
Rep. Shupe agreed with Commissioner Buckson’s assessment that there is an allocation problem within existing funding. He said local school districts should have more say in determining allocating education funds.
“There isn’t a way to spend us into prosperity when it comes to the education system here in Delaware,” Rep. Shupe said.
Education came up again when the conversation turned to the recent spike in violent crime in Delaware. Commissioner Buckson said understanding students’ trauma and offering restorative practices in schools is, in some cases, preventing children from learning their actions have consequences.
“(Trauma and restorative practices) is not a bad phrase,” Commissioner Buckson said. “The problem is we’re applying it to any and all situations that occur in school districts.”
He called for more accountability in terms of crime in the community too.
Mayor Campbell said he believes poverty and COVID-19-related shutdowns have contributed to an increase in crime. He noted the Milford Police Department does have mental health professionals.
Rep. Shupe said limiting gun ownership to reduce shootings and crime will not have as much of an impact as would mental health support.