Originally created 01/26/99

Legislators aim to cut tax burden



COLUMBIA -- Some South Carolina legislators who have an eye on next year's elections want to delay property reassessments for a year until they can craft a plan to shield homeowners from huge tax increases as property values rise.

In Greenville County, for instance, property is scheduled to be reassessed next year for the first time since 1993. The value of homes in the county increased an average of 17 percent from 1995 to 1997, The Greenville News reported Monday.

A person's tax bill is usually determined by multiplying the tax rate by a percentage of his property's assessed value.

Not all counties reassess property in the same year.

Richard Wood was stunned last year when taxes on a house he owns in Beaufort County soared $1,500, a 59 percent increase because of the county's first reassessment in nine years.

Mr. Wood, a tax assessor in Charlottesville, Va., said the huge jump would not be possible on his Virginia home because property there is revalued annually for tax purposes. That reduces the shock of shifts in tax burdens because of growth and soaring values.

South Carolina once required reassessment every 10 years, but the General Assembly changed the law in 1995 to every five years. Mr. Wood said that's too long in fast-growing regions such as Charleston, Columbia or Greenville.

"I'm not saying Virginia's system is the best, but it's the best one I've seen," said Mr. Wood, who plans to retire in South Carolina.

Sen. Ernie Passailaigue, D-Charleston, said the law could mean some homeowners will be forced to sell homes they have occupied for decades because they cannot pay soaring tax bills.

"It shouldn't be the public policy of South Carolina to make people sell their homes, but it is now," he said. He has introduced a bill that would limit increases to 15 percent in the five-year reassessment cycle, or 3 percent a year.

To compensate counties, the bill would update the taxable value of a property every time it is sold. Now, property that sells for more than its assessed value isn't considered more valuable until the next reassessment.

Beaufort County's new valuations unleashed a storm of protests, much like in Lexington County when officials waited 12 years to evaluate the rapidly rising values around Lake Murray.

State law limits the increase in a local taxing authority's reassessment revenue to the Consumer Price Index, or rate of inflation,but some homeowners still can get hit with larger increases than others.

If overall property values rise more than inflation, the taxing authority must lower the tax rate. That means people whose property values remained static could see their tax bill shrink.

People who bought newly constructed homes are not dramatically affected because their homes go on the tax books at the sale price.

However, those who have owned their homes for many years and have seen values skyrocket around them could see their tax bills soar to reflect the higher assessed value.