With 2012 property reassessment looming, Beaufort County is trying to determine whether state law requires a tax-rate increase.
The state's attorney general believes it does.
Property is reassessed every five years in South Carolina. Ordinarily, values rise between reassessments, and when they do, state law requires local governments to "roll back" their tax rates so that they don't enjoy a windfall and a de facto tax hike.
But it is unclear what happens if real estate prices fall, as they have in Beaufort County and elsewhere since the last reassessment. Does the law require governments to "roll up" tax rates to prevent a loss of revenue?
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According to the S.C. Attorney General, they do. Alan Wilson's office argues the law simply gives a formula to calculate post-reassessment tax rates -- it does not matter if values rise or fall; the formula is to be followed no matter what.
Beaufort and Jasper counties requested the opinion and received a response June 28.
Attorney General opinions typically are followed, but they are not legally binding. Indeed, Assistant Attorney General Cydney M. Milling's response to Beaufort and Jasper counties notes that until courts rule on this "novel question," it won't be settled definitively.
Some Beaufort County Council members are concerned about how a roll-up would affect lower-income property owners.
The council, which has been occupied with budget debates, will probably get an explanation of the opinion from the staff this month, according to county attorney Josh Gruber. The council would then have time to determine what it can do to mitigate the effects of a roll-up.
"Thankfully, we are in a position that our reassessment is at least somewhat of a ways off," he said.
Jasper County won't be so fortunate. Its reassessment is this year, and officials have planned a roll-up of about 14 percent for county operating taxes and 22 percent for school operating taxes.
Director of administrative services Ronnie Malphrus said the Attorney General's Office opinion helped boost the county's confidence that its roll-up would withstand challenges.
Jasper County administrator Andrew Fulghum said reassessment notices have been sent, and residents have asked how it will affect their bills.
So far, Fulghum said, he's received no push-back on the roll-up.
"I'm sure that'll come, but it hasn't happened yet," he said.
Follow reporter Kyle Peterson at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.