Senior sales-tax break rarely invoked or honored in Beaufort County

sbowman@islandpacket.comAugust 24, 2013 

onepercent

A sign in a Hilton Head Island Doncaster Outlet store informs customers 85 years and older that they are entitled to a one percent reduction in sales tax.

SARAH BOWMAN — Staff photo Buy Photo

  • How to ...

  • Get a card showing you are eligible for the tax break, call 803-898-5405.

  • Report a business that is not complying, call 803-898-5000.

  • Anne Delvecchio has run up quite a bill.
  • But this is not money she owes -- this is money owed to her.

    After years of stores denying her a tax break that she's entitled to, Delvecchio just doesn't even try to get it anymore.

    "I figure they owe me about $1,000, all the businesses," said Delvecchio, who has lived on Hilton Head Island for 32 years. "I stopped asking for it about a year ago when stores kept telling me they don't know what (the tax break) is."

    Delvecchio is just one of many Beaufort County senior citizens having problems receiving the state's 1 percent sales-tax break for people age 85 and older. Many others who would qualify don't even realize the break exists.

    THE TAX BREAK

    The tax break for seniors was actually an exemption from the tax created in 1984 by the Education Improvement Act, according to S.C. Department of Revenue spokeswoman Samantha Cheek.

    The exemption applies to any purchase on which the sales and use tax is normally added. That includes clothes, services, convenience-store items and liquor. The exemption does not apply to the 3 percent sales tax on unprepared food, Cheek said.

    She said the agency has no estimate of the money that the tax break has saved senior citizens.

    To receive the break, seniors must ask for it and may be required to show proof of age. Cheek said the agency offers a card identifying the bearer as eligible, but the cards are not required to receive the exemption -- any valid ID that shows age will do.

    Retailers are required to have a sign posted on their doors or by the cash registers letting shoppers who are 85 and older know they are entitled to the exemption. Those who do not can be fined $100 per month, according to Cheek, and repeat offenders could have their license revoked.

    However, the only way the agency would find out about violations is if someone called it in, Cheek said.

    "It's ultimately up to the retailer to make sure they are complying with their tax obligations," Cheek said.

    Some senior citizens in Beaufort County say many stores do not comply.

    So what's the recourse?

    NONCOMPLIANCE

    Many seniors say stores simply are unaware of the exemption.

    An employee at a Beaufort County pharmacy where the required sign was not displayed said, "I didn't know that existed or that we were supposed to offer that. I've had a few people ask for it, but I thought they were joking."

    An employee at BUF's Trophies and Plaques store in Beaufort, which had the sign, said it's understandable why it would be difficult to convince a clerk who is unaware of the law that those 85 or older are entitled to the discount.

    "It's one thing to have a store discount for servicemen or senior citizens," the employee said, but when you don't collect taxes, revenue authorities start showing up. "You don't know if someone is trying to con you."

    A sampling of sales clerks and store owners interviewed by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette agreed that very few senior citizens ask about the exemption.

    WHAT'S TO BE DONE?

    Hilton Head resident Grace Johnson, 92, said she demands the tax break everywhere she goes, but she knows many people who are unaware of it.

    Stores that are aware of it don't always have the discount programmed into their registers, so getting the discount can take 10 minutes or longer, she said.

    An 89-year-old Hilton Head resident, who asked that her name not be used for this story, said he has given up after countless denials by stores.

    "Someone thought they were doing a good thing, but they're really just giving lots of entanglements and hassles to stores and customers," he said. "They either need to get rid of the tax break or make it more clear for everyone."

    Senior citizens and businesses alike say the Revenue Department needs to do a better job of spreading the word about the tax break and making sure stores comply and make the exemption accessible.

    "It's the best kept secret there is," Delvecchio said. "It's only 1 percent, but that can add up."

    Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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