Debit cards prove unpopular for Beaufort County tax refund recipients

gmartin@islandpacket.comMay 11, 2012 

Most Beaufort County residents might count a long-awaited income-tax refund as a predictable but enjoyable benefit in May, along with the start of shrimp season and the advent of ideal beach weather.

But not Phil D'Agostino. Not this year, at least.

When the Hilton Head Island resident opened a letter this month from the S.C. Department of Revenue containing his refund, he found to his surprise -- and displeasure -- a debit card.

"I was just appalled," he says. "I paid them in American currency, so I think it's only fair that I be given my return in American currency."

D'Agostino, 88, is among the first recipients of a debit-card refund, implemented this year by the Department of Revenue to cut costs.

"If half of the people that elected to have their refunds come in the form of checks last year chose to have theirs as a debit card this year, it would save the state roughly $1 million," said department spokeswoman Samantha Cheek.

Cheek said the program marks the inception of a long-term plan to phase out paper-check refunds entirely, adding that seven other states also recently adopted debit cards.

She said data for how many South Carolinians elected to receive a debit card were not yet available.

But it doesn't appear to have been a popular choice among Beaufort County residents.

Beaufort accountant David Morrill said none of his clients chose it, calling it impractical for people with bank accounts.

He added that it's likely D'Agostino or his accountant inadvertently checked the wrong box on his return, as the options for check and debit card are beside each other.

Cheek said D'Agostino and other unsuspecting recipients of the cards can contact Bank of America to redeem them for cash or a check. She said the department contracted with the bank for the program because of its experience in issuing unemployment benefits with the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce.

That's of little consolation to D'Agostino, however, who says he has no intention of activating his new card.

"I think it's an infringement on my rights," he said. "I'm just mystified as to why the state would do this."

The sentiment isn't shared by everyone, however.

Eric Esquivel, publisher of La Isla magazine, said the cards may provide an unintended benefit for some in the local immigrant community who don't have bank accounts.

"There has been a skepticism among some Hispanics about using bank accounts," he said, explaining that "the FDIC doesn't exist in Latin America."

He said the cards may be efficient and convenient for people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, adding that Hispanics are starting bank accounts at a faster rate locally than any other ethnic group.

Hilton Head accountant Kirk Glenn said that while few of his clients chose the debit card, he understands the state's rationale for implementing it.

"The cards are just less expensive than paper checks, which take an awful lot of time to write and process," he said.

"The state figures that many of them won't be redeemed, like gift cards. And Bank of America's making money from this program, too."

Then he paused.

"There are a lot of winners here," he said, "just maybe not the taxpayers."

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