As Wednesday's deadline to file property-tax appeals approaches, some Beaufort County homeowners are questioning appraisals that left them with sharp increases in taxes, even as their properties' value dropped.
For some, tax bills jumped 20 to 30 percent in spite of a countywide reassessment revealing, for the first time, a general decrease in county property values.
The unlucky segment pays more in taxes for less valuable land -- a "quizzical" conundrum, according to County Assessor Ed Hughes.
"In most cases the concept of value going down and taxes going down are directly associated with each other," Hughes said.
But this year, the Beaufort County Council increased the tax rate to offset the drop in property values. The goal was to keep tax revenue neutral, as required by law, according to a state Attorney General's Office opinion.
The Assessor's Office hasn't fully analyzed reassessment data to know how many homeowners face this scenario, Hughes said.
Beaufort County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville called it "an anomaly."
"But there's a reason someone's taxes went up," he said. "If someone just looks at their tax bill and sees their taxes go up, they're angry. Hopefully, they look at the elements that made it so."
The scenario stems from a state law that protects homeowners from steep tax increases when property values rise dramatically, capping the increase in taxable value from one reassessment to the next at 15 percent if the property has not changed hands.
Nearly 91 percent of properties were protected by that cap in 2009's reassessment, when the housing boom had values soaring. This year, only 9 percent of properties hit the cap, Hughes said.
But the state law was designed as a "ceiling" during periods of escalating prices and doesn't set a "floor" to stymie declining values, Hughes said.
Hughes said that in most cases, if a property's taxable value decreased by more than 13 percent from the previous reassessment, the owner could expect a tax decline.
But for some, such as Lady's Island resident Ann Ubelis, property values did not decrease enough to avoid a tax hike.
After the 2009 reassessment, the county set the taxable value of her home at $206,000, but protected her with a capped value of $147,000. That left her annual tax bill at $500, according to county property records.
But this year, though her home dropped to about $162,000 in appraised value, she's without the relief of the cap and paying roughly $200 more annually in property taxes.
"It's a kick in the gut, especially around the holidays," she said. "Here I thought I had myself budgeted, and now I have to figure out what I'm going to give up.
"If this happened to me on a tiny piece of property, imagine someone with much more land at much higher value," she added.
Ubelis has filed an appeal, one of nearly 4,500 collected by the Assessor's Office since property value notices went out in mid-September.
Hughes expects 1,500 more by the Wednesday deadline, far fewer than the 15,000 appeals filed last reassessment, he said.
Carl Joye, a real estate agent in Beaufort, said the lack of appeals reflects the county's success in appraising property in relation to market value.
"They are a lot closer than they used to be, that's for sure," he said. "But, obviously, everyone isn't going to be happy, and everything is not going to be right."
Follow reporter Dan Burley on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.