Beaufort County right to charge processsing fee

Towns and counties sure know how to peeve their residents.

Once a year, dutiful taxpayers pull out their credit cards to pay their property tax bills (a painful task for even the most rule-abiding) and -- wham -- they're hit with a "nominal" processing fee.

In Beaufort County, it is 2.75 percent of their total bill.

It's as if residents are being financially penalized instead of commended for their law-abiding, taxpaying ways, ensuring that schools keep their lights on, potholes get repaired and deputies drive well-equipped patrol cars.

A bouquet of flowers and a warm thank you seem far more appropriate to us.

While we sympathize with the seeming unfairness of the situation, we oppose a budget proviso to prohibit the state's muncipalities and counties from charging fees when people pay with credit cards. The proviso, introduced by two House members, one a Democrat and the other a Republican from Charleston County, is certainly a feel-good measure that could wrack up votes in this reelection year.

"Many low income and working families use credit cards out of necessity to pay mandatory tax bills," recently wrote Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, the Democrat in the duo. "Adding fees on top of the tax and interest people have to pay to keep their property is just wrong."

We certainly appreciate his point. But the proviso's consequences are even more unfair than leaving the fees in place.

Beaufort County Treasurer Doug Henderson makes a compelling case that eliminating the fee would create about a $1 million shortfall for the county, which might result in a tax increase. Exactly how to cover the processing fees -- a tax increase or tapping a pot of county money -- would ultimately be up to County Council. But undoubtedly, the result would be that a convenience for some would become an expense for all.

And it's likely to be a sizable expense.

In 2010, before the fee was charged, Beaufort County racked up nearly $1.2 million in credit card processing fees. That caught the attention of newly-elected treasurer Henderson who, in 2011, began charging those who used credit to pay the bills. The result: charges dropped to less than $470,000 that year. Now, they're less than $260,000 for taxes collected for the first nine months of the current fiscal year.

While we take no joy in acknowledging it, this seems fair. Using a credit card is a convenience. And those who take advantage of the convenience should be the ones to pay the price.

Unlike schools, road-paving equipment and a sheriff's department, there is no collective benefit to county residents by picking up the processing fees tab. This is a case where specific individuals benefit -- and it's fair to single out those individuals with a fee.

Additionally, the redaction of the fee would likely encourage more taxpayers to use their credit cards in order to accrue frequent-flier miles and other incentives offered by their credit card companies. Thus, processing fees could climb higher than the $1 million estimate.

For these reasons, we must oppose the proviso. But we'd still appreciate that bouquet from the treasurer's office come tax season.