Getting appeals process running well should be a priority

info@islandpacket.comApril 16, 2013 

Beaufort County should make getting its property tax appeals process in good working order a top priority.

Notices on recalculated property values will go out later this year, and if past reassessment years are any indication, we'll see thousands of appeals.

The county's Tax Equalization Board, a key part of the appeals process, has two problems: It has no staff help and has only four of seven members.

The board has suspended hearings indefinitely after losing its only employee last month, but the appeals were going at a glacial pace anyway.

The panel is limited to four appeals at each meeting and holds no more than two meetings a month. With 190 cases pending, it would take several years to resolve just the outstanding cases at that rate.

One suggestion is to expand the board to 15 members and create subcommittees to hear appeals independently. That should be done before this year's reassessment notices go out. The fact that three seats on the seven-member board are empty raises concerns about being able to fill a 15-member board. Still, it's clear something must change to speed the process.

The county also should quickly hire someone to replace the part-time help the board lost. That county-paid employee also worked for the county's Legislative Delegation. The position has been filled, but the person is working solely for the delegation and not the tax board.

It makes sense to have an employee dedicated full time to the tax board, but it would have made more sense to get that position filled before hiring someone to help lawmakers.

Most assessment appeals are resolved by the county Assessor's Office, so efficiency there is key.

Settling the more than 11,000 appeals from the 2004 reassessment took until well into 2006 to resolve. But under the leadership of assessor Ed Hughes, the 14,588 appeals after the 2009 reassessment took less than a year. In September 2010, the county Assessor's Office became the first in South Carolina to receive the Distinguished Assessment Jurisdiction Award from the International Association of Assessing Officers.

Hughes attributed the improvement to replacing a 30-year-old computer system, hiring more staff and moving all of its operations into one office.

Owners have to pay their taxes even while disputing their assessments, so it's important -- and fair -- to resolve these issues as quickly as possible. County officials should make sure the resources are in place to do that.

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