If you’re a business owner and owe past property taxes to Beaufort County, you may soon be getting an unpleasant phone call from an unfamiliar number.
For the first time, the county is siccing a collection agency on business owners in hopes of taking a bite out of the past-due taxes owed.
Those companies account for nearly $15 million in delinquent property taxes — about 45 percent of all outstanding balances, Beaufort County Treasurer Maria Walls said earlier this week.
The county has about 5,000 delinquent accounts it plans to immediately turn over to Indiana-based American Financial Credit Services.
The company would take on the work in exchange for 20 percent of what it collects, she said.
Walls said the firm specializes in collecting debts owed to governments and strives to work with companies rather than harass them.
Prior to 2014, the only mechanism the county had to collect tax debts was the annual property sale. A change to state law that year allowed the county to begin garnishing income tax returns as another collection tool.
But still, “there are a lot of limitations on (Walls’) office in terms of what they can collect,” deputy county administrator Josh Gruber said earlier this week.
Walls said that, before wages can be garnished, the county must provide the S.C. Department of Revenue with a Social Security number for the delinquent taxpayer.
But for property owned by companies — many of which are not based in South Carolina — that information doesn’t exist, she said.
That’s where American Financial Credit Services comes in.
“I don’t have the staffing to call every taxpayer” who owes money on a commercial property, Walls said.
“They will do what they can to find the individual responsible for the business,” reach out to them, and, if necessary, work out a payment plan to get the debt paid off, Walls said.
Beaufort County Councilman Jerry Stewart said earlier this week that he was “shocked to see the magnitude” of delinquent balances on business accounts.
“We will be able to use (the collection agency) to clean up the tax rolls, and that’s beneficial for us,” he said.
Walls agreed, saying the collection agency can also help purge the tax rolls of noncollectable accounts, such as a business that no longer exists or a commercial property owned by someone who is deceased.
The only downside Walls said she predicts is an uptick in “angry phone calls” from the business owners who owe taxes.