The Beaufort County board that reviews property tax appeals is overwhelmed, and after losing its only employee last month, has suspended hearings on cases indefinitely.
The suspension likely will add to the Tax Equalization Board's backlog, which has grown to more than 190 unresolved appeals dating to September 2011. The board considers cases from property owners who believe the county has put too high a value on their property for tax purposes.
Board chairman Robert Cummins Jr. said losing the staffer is just one challenge facing the seven-member volunteer board, which has three vacancies.
Time constraints also limit the number of appeals that can be heard at each meeting to no more than four cases. With no more than two meetings a month, it would take more than 30 months just to hear the cases on file.
"It's frustrating for everyone," Cummins said. "It's a complex problem and we have to work through it, and it's taking time."
County officials say they are working on a solution. One possibility involves expanding the board to 15 members and creating subcommittees to hear appeals independently, much as Charleston County does.
"I think what we are going to do is try and improve the makeup and membership of that board, which will hopefully allow us to hear more cases ... and have the ability to reduce the backlog," county attorney Josh Gruber said.
The state-mandated property reassessment currently under way, which county officials expect to spur a wave of new appeals, is one reason to expand. Losing the county employee who assisted the tax board -- in addition to her main duties serving the county's legislative delegation -- was another reason.
Although the position has since been filled, the new employee will work solely for the delegation and not for the tax board, County Assessor Ed Hughes said.
Two things necessitated the change, according to state Sen. Tom Davis. One is that the employee, whose salary is paid by the county, is busy providing constituent services for the delegation, which grew by two members after the 2012 election.
Given the large number of appeals, county officials also recognized it made sense to have a support person who answered solely to county administrators, Davis said.
The board was created by a state statute in 1973. Most cases are resolved by the county Assessor's Office, but property owners dissatisfied with that review can appeal to the tax board, which can change valuations.
Since Act 388 was adopted in 2006 -- exempting owner-occupied homes from paying taxes for school operations -- the number of appeals has risen sharply, Cummins said, as many try to claim their homes as owner-occupied.
The law also sets a home's sales price as its new valuation between reassessments, in some cases creating large differences in valuations among similar properties.
Since 2009, the county has received about 27,000 appeals, about a third of which resulted in adjustments, Hughes said. The remaining cases were either dropped or the assessor's valuation was deemed accurate.
In cases in which appeals are successful, the county refunds the difference with interest. Owners must keep paying their taxes until the appeal is resolved.
One of the nearly 200 tax appeals pending involves County Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch. The Bensches argue they lost access to land they owned near Buckingham Plantation Drive during construction of the Bluffton Parkway and are due a rebate.
The county took about 3.3 acres of the Bensches' land in 2009 to build the parkway, ultimately paying them $1.65 million. The family sold its remaining 6.8 acres last year in a short sale and is seeking a tax rebate from 2010 and 2011.
Bensch said this week that a new hearing date has not been set.