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County eases tax rate increase to offset fall in values

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County Council members voted this week to increase the tax rate 7.6 percent over last year to offset lower property values as a result of reassessment.

The rate was proposed to increase 9.6 percent two weeks ago, but was adjusted to account for changes in reassessment numbers provided by the state and updates to vehicle registration, said County Administrator Sel Hemingway.

The increase will prevent the county from experiencing a recurring $2.2 million hole in its budget, but it had some residents riled this week. About two dozen of them packed council chambers to convince, or in some cases, threaten council members into voting against the millage increase. They said council should find ways to cut the budget instead.

“How can [people on a fixed income] live within their means if we’re taxed every time we turn around,” Bo Long of Litchfield Country Club, representing the Waccamaw Neck Council of Property Owners Associations, demanded during a public hearing on the increase. “We on Waccamaw Neck feel we’re the goose that lays the golden eggs, and we feel like we’re being taken advantage of and having to subsidize other areas of the county that have less than we do.”

A dozen people spoke during the hearing, including one other Waccamaw Neck resident, Bill Johnson of North Litchfield, who spoke in favor of keeping revenue stable by raising the tax rate.

“I know we’re all in a bad state right now and times are tough ... but cutting services we really need is not the answer,” Johnson said.

“We’re not talking about creating new programs, but keeping the budget where it is,” Johnson said.

The tax rate, or millage, is adjusted to accommodate for changes in property value, ensuring the county continues to collect the same amount in property taxes, he explained.

Property values fell 5.6 percent countywide. In the town of Pawleys Island, values decreased 15.2 percent. The drop in values was 2.25 percent from DeBordieu to North Litchfield and 9.5 percent in Murrells Inlet.

If values had gone up, like they did in the last reassessment, millage would have gone down. The tax rate dropped 19.7 mills after the reassessment in 2006.

This is the first time county officials can recall that millage has increased as a result of reassessment, and even after the increase the tax rate is still 20.5 percent lower than in 1999, Hemingway said.

Significant cuts were already made to the county’s budget in the last two budget cycles, including eliminating 23 staff positions and an across-the-board 3 percent salary reduction for all county employees.

To cut $2.2 million, more personnel cuts would have to be made, impacting services such as fire protection and emergency services, Hemingway said.

If council didn’t approve the millage increase, it would have cost the county about $16 million over the course of 10 years, even if council raised taxes the maximum amount allowed by state law every year, Hemingway estimated. Council’s taxing authority is limited by the consumer price index and population growth, both of which are zero this year.

County officials were begged to delay reassessment in 2006 when values were expected to skyrocket, leading to higher property taxes, Hemingway reminded council.

The opposite happened this year. When county officials considered a delay, they were urged against it.

“This year the assumption was values had greatly declined,” Hemingway said, but he warned more than a year ago that wouldn’t be the case.

Long told council he has heard quite a few complaints about reassessment from property owners on Waccamaw Neck who were expecting values to be lower than in the past. He said his value increased more than $20,000, even though he hasn’t made any repairs.

“In fact it needs repair,” he said.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about how the process works, Hemingway said.

Reassessment is based on values as they were in December 2009. Nothing that happened between that and the last valuation date of December 2004 is taken into account.

The county sent out about 57,000 reassessment notices and has so far received 1,054 appeals, with more coming in every day, according to staff in the assessor’s office. That’s already more than were received during the last reassessment (989 appeals), and the appeals window is still open for about 60 more days.

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