In Sun City Hilton Head, simply moving across the street can mean taking a bigger hit to the wallet when it comes time to pay the tax man.
For resident Donald Cammerata, that reality is a bitter pill to swallow.
Sun City, the private retirement community just west of Bluffton, is bisected by U.S. 278.
South of the highway is the larger, older portion of the community. Homes in this area are part of unincorporated Beaufort County.
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On the other side of the highway is a newer portion of the community known as Sun City North. Neighborhoods there sit inside the city limits of Hardeeville, a Jasper County municipality.
Cammerata has lived on both sides of the divide — moving into the Beaufort County side in 2006 and then to a new home on the Jasper County side last year.
Property taxes for his current home — he paid about $3,100 this year — are about three times as high as they were when he lived in the Beaufort County portion.
“That’s just astonishing to me,” Cammerata said.
He questions whether Sun City North residents — who share access to all of the community’s myriad amenities and are served by its private security staff — are getting any bang for their property tax bucks.
“We pay a lot money to Jasper County, and I legitimately do not know what services we get in return,” he said.
Larry Lee, a friend of Cammerata’s who lives on the Beaufort County side, said, “To me, (taxes) are the big rub.”
“A lot of people in the northern section just don’t understand why their taxes are so much higher,” Lee, who pays roughly a third of Cammerata’s annual property tax total, said. Lee paid just under $1,000 this year.
Beaufort County deputy administrator Josh Gruber said county staff and elected officials regularly field “calls from someone in (the) Jasper County (portion of Sun City) wondering why my property taxes are so much higher than my neighbors’ are.”
“They are sometimes not aware that they are buying a property in Jasper County rather than Beaufort County,” he said, “and that can create confusion and sometimes frustration.”
Lee said during the recent recession, when real estate agents and salespeople scrambled to fill the empty lots in Sun City North, some downplayed the fact that homes built there would be in Jasper County and subject to higher property taxes.
Over the past three weeks, more than a dozen calls to Sun City Hilton Head’s Community Association and the community’s developer, Pulte, seeking comment for this story were not returned.
Jasper County director of administrative services Ronnie Malphrus said, “We used to get a lot of (complaints)” from those confused and frustrated Sun City North residents, but “not so many anymore.”
He said his county has stepped up efforts in recent years to improve communication with residents, including holding a series of meetings to answer questions and address concerns.
Part of the reason for the property tax discrepancy is that fact that residents of Sun City North pay taxes to both Jasper County and the city of Hardeeville, while their neighbors to the south pay only a single tax to Beaufort County.
Because Beaufort County has a “much larger tax base, that allows us to keep property taxes lower,” Gruber said.
The new population has certainly brought additional tax revenues into the city.
Hardeeville Mayor Harry Williams
Sun City North, which was annexed into Hardeeville in 2007 prior to the start of home construction, accounts for the “lion’s share of new residential building permits” issued by the city, Hardeeville Mayor Harry Williams said.
With about 2,000 residents, the community already makes up a significant portion of the city’s population of roughly 5,000.
And because there are still empty lots in Sun City North, the community “will continue to occupy a significant growth area in Hardeeville for the next few years at least,” Williams, a Sun City North resident, said.
“The new population has certainly brought additional tax revenues into the city,” he said.
Malphrus said because “home values are obviously a little higher in that area” as compared to other parts of Jasper County, property tax revenue from Sun City North and other nearby communities such as Hampton Pointe play an important role in helping balance budgets for Jasper County and Hardeeville.
Williams said that additional tax revenue has allowed the city to accomplish projects it otherwise would be “incapable of undertaking financially,” such as replacing police cruisers and providing training for firefighters.
“That can would get kicked down the road without the expanded tax base” from communities such as Sun City North, he said.
But Cammerata said he and his neighbors feel they are unfairly shouldering the tax burden for services they don’t often use.
Annual homeowner’s fees paid to the community cover security, which lessens the need for a strong police presence; road maintenance and landscaping, which reduces the strain on government public works crews; and access to private amenities such as golf courses and pools, which reduces demand for public parks and recreation services, he said.
In fact, the development agreement between Hardeeville and Sun City’s previous developer — Del Webb Communities Inc. — expressly addresses these issues.
“The age-restricted and gated nature of the community greatly reduces the need for many other services, such as police and fire, as compared to an average subdivision development,” according to the 2007 document. “The adjoining Sun City development in Beaufort County demonstrates these facts.”
Private amenities “all but eliminate the need for off-site recreational facilities,” the agreement says.
“The fact that the demand for government services will be substantially lower, coupled with the fact that per-home property tax value will likely be substantially higher, will work to assure a very positive financial effect on the city (of Hardeeville) and its existing residents,” according to the agreement.
Despite the significant difference in their property tax bills, both Cammerata and Lee say they don’t view U.S. 278 as a barrier to community integration and social interaction.
“Its all one place,” Cammerata said. “When you’re in here, there’s never really a mention of which side you live on.”
People are constantly going back and forth over the bridge spanning U.S 278 that connects the two portions of Sun City, he said. “I play softball with over 200 (Sun City residents) from both sides of the county line.”