Some Beaufort Co. homeowners exempt from school taxes. Councilman wants that to change

After referring to a controversial school funding law as a “political third rail” and saying the county is “desperate” for a solution, Beaufort County Council vice-chairman Paul Sommerville is officially appealing to South Carolina lawmakers for help.

On Monday, Sommerville sent a letter to the county’s state legislative delegation, asking them to advocate for county councils gaining the ability to hold referendums on school funding.

He wants a Beaufort County referendum that would take 25 percent of school operating taxes and apply them to primary homeowners, who are currently exempt from paying the tax.

The current exemption for primary homeowners stems from Act 388, a 2006 law that swapped those taxes out for a one percent sales tax increase to fund school operating budgets. This places the burden of school funding on secondary residences, including rental properties, and businesses.

The state reimburses counties for the loss of primary home taxes with a portion of sales tax collections. But these reimbursements were calculated from property values in 2008, when the act went into effect, and have not increased to reflect growth.

Sommerville, a landlord who pays more in school taxes under Act 388, said that if his proposed referendum passed, it would alleviate the tax burden on secondary residences.

“I always vote myself a tax increase,” he said on July 15 of his record on passing school budgets. “And I always pass it along to my renters.”

The councilman, along with Beaufort County School District employees, board of education members and critics, concedes that the law is a “political third rail” that would be difficult to change, as it benefits a large portion of the state’s voting population.

The same issue would likely apply to any school-funding referendum the county takes on.

“I’ll give Paul credit, he got the conversation started around Act 388,” board of education member David Striebinger said. “But I don’t know that there’s that level of altruism when it comes to people’s taxes.”

Sommerville says he’s far from the only one that sees the act’s flaws.

“Informed renters are justifiably upset about the current application of Act 388 to their monthly rental costs,” Sommerville wrote in his letter to the state legislative delegation. “Many primary residence (four percent) taxpayers have approached me and stated that they would gladly contribute to school operations were it not for the Act 388 prohibition.”

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Rachel Jones covers education for the Island Packet and the Beaufort Gazette. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and has worked for the Daily Tar Heel and Charlotte Observer. Rachel grew up in Ayden, NC, surrounded by teachers.