County smart to attempt new way to get past due taxes

Beaufort County's plan to garnish South Carolina tax refunds to collect past due property taxes on mobile homes should result in two positives: More money in the county till and fewer missing or decrepit mobile homes on the tax rolls.

Quite frankly, we're wondering what took the county so long to use this collection tool. The state law allowing the county to tap state tax refunds to get its money has been on the books since 1995. It can be used for a variety of debts, not just overdue property taxes.

And it make sense to use it to collect back taxes on mobile homes. County treasurer Doug Henderson says nearly 4,000 mobile home owners owe the county about $770,000 in back taxes.

Part of the process is notifying the owners that the county wants to garnish their state tax refunds and offering them a chance to object. That's where the county is likely to sort out which mobile homes have been sold, junked or moved to another county.

The mobile homes could be sold in the county's annual tax auction, but only a handful of the 1,000 or so properties sold each October are mobile homes. Henderson said that mobile homes don't attract bidders because they often are old and decaying, and the county doesn't want to end up owning them should the taxes remain unpaid.

The program might be expanded to boats and other types of personal property, Henderson said.

We're not so high on another new county effort to make sure people are paying all the taxes they owe. The county is asking people to report to the Assessor's Office "residential exemption fraud." In other words, they want us to turn in people we suspect shouldn't be getting the lower tax bills that come up with resident homeownership. Resident homeowners' property is assessed at 4 percent, rather than 6 percent, and they don't have to pay school operating taxes, which greatly reduces their tax bills.

County officials have seen more and more properties convert to the 4 percent rate after property tax reform became law in 2007.

But if county employees are making sure people legitimately qualify for the exemption, why do they need neighbors telling on neighbors? (The county is providing an easy email link on its website to do so.)

People who want the exemption have to provide documentation:

  • A copy of their South Carolina vehicle registration.
  • A copy of their South Carolina driver's license or identification card.
  • A copy of the owner-occupant's most recently filed South Carolina income tax return.
  • A copy of your trust agreement if property is held in a trust.
  • Military orders and IDs if in the military.
  • And the person must sign an application -- under penalty of perjury -- attesting that their answers are true.

    The county is asking us to report people we "know" are renting their property, using it for commercial purposes or as a vacation home. Also, the county wants us to call or email if we "know" their primary residence is elsewhere or the property is vacant.

    Some obvious scofflaws might be out there, but knowing and suspecting are two different things, and a neighbor's suspicions could cause of lot of problems for someone even if they later prove unfounded.

    Help for the county could turn into a hindrance to doing their jobs if they get a lot of bogus tips to check out, and it could turn into harassment for law-abiding people. The county should tread carefully here.