Property taxes rise, but the pain isn’t the same for all

By Bobby Bryant, Editor,

Yes, residents of the city and county of Darlington, your property taxes have gone up. And depending on where you live and the house you live in, the effects are going to range from mild annoyance to a painful surprise.

“There is a tax increase,” said Darlington County administrator Charles Stewart. “(But) it’s different for different people, it really is.”

It’s all a result of a complex stew of relatively small changes that in some cases are adding up to a painful hit on residents’ property-tax bills – and in other cases are barely being noticed.

Bottom line: If you live in the city of Darlington, you’re going to notice a hike in your property-tax bills more so than if you live in the county. If you live in an expensive home, you’re going to notice it more than if you live in a modest one. And if you live in an expensive home in the city, it’s likely going to sting.

Darlington City Council member Bryant Gardner said his own property-tax bill jumped by an amount he estimated at something near 30 percent. Others told him their tax bills also rose significantly.

“I heard from a few different people,” Gardner said. “The people I talked to were like, ‘Oh my God, it shot up.’ . . . I don’t think that anybody was happy about this.”

But at the same time, there seems to be little outrage, just confusion. Stewart said Dec. 3 that only three people had asked him to explain how their property-tax bills turned out the way they did.

Here’s the explanation, according to Stewart:

— The city of Darlington raised its tax millage rate as far as possible under the laws that control such financial matters, Stewart said. By itself, that’s not much. Officials say local governments’ tax millage rates are linked to the Consumer Price Index (CPI), and this year, the CPI is 2.44 percent. Local governments needing more revenue were allowed to raise their tax millage rate by that amount in preparing their new budgets, and the city of Darlington exercised that option, Stewart said.

— So did the Darlington County School District, he said. District officials also opted for the maximum tax millage rate increase allowed by the 2.44 percent CPI, Stewart said. Again, by itself, not a major hit for taxpayers.

— The county of Darlington also increased its tax millage rate, but only by about one-third as much as would have been allowed by the CPI, Stewart said. Again, an increase, but not much by itself.

— And then there was a decrease in the “local option sales tax,” or LOST, credit this year. Stewart said that LOST credit dropped significantly for Darlington city taxpayers this time because sales taxes were down; city businesses didn’t do as much business.

Those four things primarily drove the property-tax increases that homeowners are seeing, Stewart said. Reassessment – a once-every-five-year event – also took place this year, some officials noted. (Another potentially confusing factor in the mix: Darlington County changed the format of its annual property-tax bills this year so that they show more information.)

“The city, the school district and the county all raised their millage within the legal limit,” Stewart said. “… There were tax increases, and there was less credit given than was given before.”

Property owners in the city of Darlington are feeling a bigger pinch, since they pay both city and county taxes. “City residents will feel it harder than non-city residents,” he said.

One of the things that makes the property-tax increases harder to explain, Stewart said, is that there is no “average” increase. The amount of the increase depends on many factors.

Just as an example, Stewart cited the property-tax bill received by a Darlington city resident who asked Stewart to help explain why his taxes went up. This man’s bill went from $1,426 to $1,763 – a 23 percent increase in his case. But his case can’t be considered “typical” because of all the factors involved. Did someone make improvements in the property?

You’d pay more. Was the taxpayer getting a “homestead exemption,” an age-linked tax break? You’d pay less.

“There’s no way you’re going to be able to say, ‘The average increase in the tax bill is (blank),’” Stewart said. “The city of Darlington is going to be different than outside the city limits. If they live in Palmetto Rural Fire District, it’ll be different than if they live in the Hartsville Fire District.”

In the city of Darlington’s case, the city raised its millage rate to finance road-repair work that City Council agreed was necessary. Council member Bryant Gardner was a key advocate for the road work, which he says has been needed for decades.

After being given Stewart’s analysis of the property-tax increases, Gardner said it was unfortunate that all these factors came together at the same time to cause substantial increases for both himself and others. But, he said, the city needed the additional money for the road repairs.

Gardner said it was likely that the city would need to continue finding additional revenues to deal with new or old issues – either by increasing the tax millage rate or by raising fees. But he said that the concerns arising from these property-tax increases that homeowners are seeing now have “taught me a valuable lesson.”

The lesson, Gardner said, is that Darlington County’s local governments need to communicate better with each other about their plans for raising millage rates so that we don’t have another unintentional cluster of increases.

Gardner said he likely would have hesitated about Darlington raising its tax millage rate to finance road repairs if he had known that other governments were planning to do the same – but he said the city’s road repairs must be dealt with.

Warren Jeffords of Lamar, chairman of the Darlington County School Board, said he had not heard complaints or comments about property-tax bills. He said the school district raised its millage rate for operating revenue.

Jeffords agreed with Gardner about improving communications between local governments. “We all need to communicate better, no doubt about that – the county, the cities.” But he said he couldn’t speak for the school board on whether members might be hesitant now to increase the school district’s millage rate when working on future budgets.

In Hartsville, officials were able to roll back property taxes slightly because of reassessment, economic growth and a strong LOST credit, said city manager Natalie Zeigler.

Author: Stephan Drew

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