VOICES: The Origins of Property Tax … A Tax Hike in Beaufort County

April 15, 2014

Inside Insight

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CITIZENS RAISE BIG QUESTOINS

From Brian Knack, in Greenville:

In the fall of 1994, the house and land that my grandparents bought after the Second World War – and where I grew up – were sold at auction in order to recoup the loss to the county for property taxes. To this day, I still don’t know what the county lost that was so valuable that officials had to steal and sell my family’s inheritance.

According to the County of Greenville Operating and Capital Budget for fiscal years 2012 and 2013, Greenville County collected $420.5 million in taxes. Of that money, the county collected $10 million from tax auctions and settlements. How many people lost their homes in that $10 million? I don’t know.

The modern-day property tax has its roots in feudal obligations owed to British and European kings or landlords. Land tenure is the name given, particularly in common law systems, to the legal regime in which land is owned by an individual, who is said to “hold” the land (the French verb “tenir” means “to hold”; “tenant” is the present participle of “tenir”). The sovereign monarch – “the Crown” – held land in its own right. All private owners are either its tenants or sub-tenants. The term “tenure” is used to signify the relationship between tenant and lord, not the relationship between tenant and land. The term “real estate” means royal land.

The property tax has become a sort of implicit rent payment. We are all renting, in this sense, from our local governments, with the tax representing the fee paid for the privilege of having shelter. After all, contrary to the feudal system, in modern rental arrangements, the only assumption is that of use, as opposed to income generation. It strikes me as perverse in the extreme to proclaim that the government is a universal landlord.

My question is this: Who made the county the supreme owner of all land? Who made the county “The Crown”? Why am I beholden to the county? Why are they my landlord and why am I their tenant? Who made the government my universal landlord?

The answer might surprise you. We did. By granting them the authority to tax our land for any reason or no reason at all – war, schools, debt repayment, whatever – we have sold our inheritance to the governing powers we elected.

“Among the natural rights of the colonists,” wrote Samuel Adams, “are these: First a right to life, secondly to liberty, and thirdly to property; together with the right to defend them in the best manner they can.” Do we still take those rights seriously?
From Bert Walker, in Beaufort:

Will Beaufort County raise the sales tax to pay for more capital projects? At least someone is demanding county officials to justify the move before they put it on the ballot.

The first meeting of the Beaufort County Capital Projects Sales Tax Commission, on April 10, 2014, sparked concerns from Beaufort Tea Party Director Ann Ubelis and Bluffton’s Tea Party member Diane Moreno. During the time allowed for public comment, Ms. Ubelis argued that a proposed capital project sales tax will overburden poor Beaufort County residents who are still reeling from the property tax increases last year. Ms. Moreno expressed her discomfort with the county council’s “tax and spend” mentality and whether the proposed tax increase should even go on the ballot this November.

Ms. Ubelis stated that “such a tax could also discourage the county from using the funds it already collects to pay for improvements, including a $10 fee on vehicle registration that is supposed to be devoted to road maintenance.”

Both Ubelis and Moreno argued against the proposed tax being considered by the panel (made up of six local businessmen) charged with reviewing capital improvement projects that would be funded by the tax. Other concerns raised included: the short time frame for this effort; whether a property tax relief option would better serve county residents; whether the money will only be used for approved projects; whether buying more land would be part of the capital improvement projects given the large amount of land currently owned by the county; and whether the voters want another tax in this lackluster economy.

The commission’s task is not to decide whether there should be a tax – ultimately it will be up to voters, commission chairman Craig Forest said. The commission’s task is to compile a master list from lists of improvements submitted by the county, city of Beaufort, and towns of Port Royal, Bluffton, and Hilton Head Island. They must also develop the referendum question for the November election.

If approved, the new tax would expire after a certain number of years or when all the projects are paid in full. The goal is to compile a final list of projects by this summer, so the county council can vote to put the sales tax question before the voters this November. The commission proposed meetings for April 21, April 28, May 12 and May 19. The plan is for two meetings north of the Broad and two in southern locations. The group must forward the final ballot language to Beaufort County Council for its approval by the end of June if the question is to appear on the ballot, county attorney Josh Gruber said. County residents may want to question their county representative for their rationale in supporting this new tax. Do they believe it to be sound fiscal management given all the concerns, and taking into account the recent school district shortfall of about $4.2 million in its 2013-14 budget?