By Andrew Moore
November 25, 2008 – 12:02 a.m. EST  

WALHALLA — While contending other issues concerning tax reassessments, Oconee County Council Chairman George Blanchard, County Assessor Leslie Smith, Rep. Bill Sandifer and Sen. Thomas Alexander agree on one point: the best option for those who believe they’re being unfairly taxed on their property is the right to appeal.

“Individuals can appeal their taxes, so that would be the best route,” Blanchard said. “Tax bills were sent out in September. If an individual looks at his or her tax bills and determines the appraised amount on the house is higher than the current true value, certainly they should appeal that tax.”

Sandifer agreed, while Alexander called the right of appeal “the best tool available” to those who feel property taxes are not truly reflective of their declining home values. Smith echoed that sentiment.

“You should appeal, but for the appeal to be successful you’d have to demonstrate the market has dropped below what it is being appraised for,” Smith said.

Sandifer, however, did the county’s penchant for taxation was a “gigantic difference” in the way the state government and the county government looked at finances.

“We operate within what the budget is, as evidenced by this recent $500 million reduction in the budget we just had to go through,” he said. “The county on the other hand sets a budget, then forces the income to match it. I think that’s the wrong way to do business.”

It’s been two years since Oconee went forward with a reassessment of property values, despite Sandifer and Alexander’s pleas to delay such action.

Today, the harsh economic terrain and housing market crisis are resulting in record amounts of foreclosures, as well as dropping home values.

That was not the case in 2006, County Assessor Leslie Smith said, when appraisals were taken using 2005 numbers.

Some critics have said those appraisal numbers reflected the economic indulgences of a housing market on the upswing. If the national and local housing markets yield a worsening downward trend, some could be paying taxes at a higher clip than what is commiserate with the true fair market value of their homes.

Blanchard noted the council refrained from upping the millage rate this year, which he called a “significant” break for property taxpayers. Leslie Smith said there is little that could be done to change the overall dynamics of the reassessment system, and that even if taxes were derived from a lower set of values, that would not necessarily provide any tax relief.

“There’s two parts that determine how much in taxes you’ll pay,” Smith said. “If we reduced all the values somehow, we’d have to increase the millage rate.”

Sandifer, who spearheaded the 2006 effort to delay the reassessment, said while he believed the reassessment was badly flawed, there is little anyone can do short of filing an appeal to the assessor’s office.

“They did the reassessment we asked them to delay. We were adamant about it,” Sandifer said. “If they fouled up the one they did that badly, having them frequently gives them the opportunity to foul them up even more.”

Smith, however, said there has been somewhat of an exaggeration in regards to the true drop in market values. The trade group South Carolina Realtors reports the median price for homes sold to be 1.8 percent lower than this time last year.

“If the values have only dropped 1.8 percent, we don’t really have a widespread situation of overall values dropping,” Smith said. “A lot of people read the national news, but if you look at the statistics here, they’re a far cry from what you’ve heard some people talking about.”

Smith added that since 2005 numbers were accumulated and used for the 2006 reassessment, there was a significant upward trend in property values. Therefore, any slight drop in values still would not mean residents are paying taxes higher than what is appropriate for today’s market value, he explained. Sandifer, on the other hand, contends the decision to move forward on the 2006 reassessment resulted in the county’s inability to accurately tax.

“They are collecting taxes on a highly inflated number. I share that concern. I’m just not sure what we can do, or should do,” Sandifer said of the state legislature’s role in the matter. “We still have to recognize the role of home rule. We can’t be dictatorial about it.”

Alexander, while saying he wanted council to hold off on the reassessment, said it was important to keep in mind just how different the current housing market is when compared to what is expected. In most situations, he said, a five-year period between reassessments is advantageous to the homeowner.

“You’ve got to remember, this is a very unique situation that hasn’t occurred in years,” he said. “It’s the first time in a long time you have had a declining value in homes. Normally, it would be to the homeowner’s benefit to wait a period of time.”