Soaring taxes split Sun City, anger residents

gmartin@islandpacket.comJanuary 23, 2012 

A 500-foot-long strip of woodland separates Beaufort and Jasper counties in Sun City Hilton Head, but residents on either side of that boundary are divided by more than county lines and trees.

The retirement community's Jasper County parcel contains more empty lots, fewer neighborhoods and -- more important to many of the few hundred residents that call that area home -- skyrocketing property tax rates.

Sun City residents south of the tree line pay property taxes only to Beaufort County, but those north of it pay sharply higher rates to both Jasper County and the city of Hardeeville.

"It's a double whammy," said Fred Koenig. He pays about $2,300 a year in combined property taxes on his house in the Whispering Oaks neighborhood of Sun City North.

He paid $260,000 for the home and moved in with his wife in September 2009.

"There's a lot of concern, and people are bothered by the disparity," Koenig said. "It's a vast difference between here and Sun City South."

A 26 percent increase in Jasper County's 2011 millage rate -- from a 2010 levy of 276.5 to 347.25 -- took effect in November, according to Ronnie Malphrus, director of the county's administrative services.

Malphrus said decreased property values as a result of the county's most recent assessment were key to that spike, adding that the county also needed revenue to construct two schools and renovate its courthouse.

He said Koenig and his neighbors in Sun City North shouldn't expect relief anytime soon.

"I expect (the millage rate) to be pretty level for the next 20 to 25 years," he said.

"The only way for it to go down is if we find new revenues or cut expenditures, and we've already cut about $4 million out of our operating budget in the last three years."

Malphrus said the county also laid off more than 30 employees in that time.

Sun City North resident Robert Holbrook said the soaring rate has resulted in taxes about three times higher than what he'd pay if he lived just a mile south.

Holbrook said he thinks agents for Pulte, the retirement community's developer, should have told him and his wife about the difference in taxes when they moved there in July 2010.

"We sat down with the salespeople and were told that there would be a 'very little difference' in our property taxes, but that it would be offset by a lower cost for our homeowner's insurance. That turned out to be so far from the truth," he said.

Martin Smith, Sun City's director of public relations and communications, said the development cannot control taxes, but "the community hopes for greater equity."

The sentiment doesn't appease Holbrook, who said he hasn't received or seen enough in public services to justify the taxes.

"You don't mind paying taxes if you feel you're getting something for it," he said. "But I've seen a Hardeeville firetruck once in my neighborhood and a police car maybe twice. And the school system sure leaves a lot to be desired."

He said the climbing rates are a likely factor in the recent decisions of three of his neighbors to sell their homes, though those rates might be the biggest obstacle to attracting new buyers.

Holbrook couldn't say whether he was contemplating moving.

"I'm unsure what the future holds," he said.

But he was certain about a decision he'd made in the past.

"If I could do it again, I'd have bought a house farther south," he said. "It makes a couple thousand dollars a year of a difference."

Follow reporter Grant Martin at twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

Related content:

County struggles with property-tax adjustment, May 29, 2011

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