It's not often that governments make an effort to help taxpayers get all the tax breaks for which they qualify — an effort that reduces revenue if it's successful.
But that's just what the county auditors in Charleston and Dorchester counties have done, and thousands of older homeowners are the better off for it financially.
In Charleston County alone, homeowners age 65 and above saved more than half a million dollars on property tax bills.
Charleston County auditor Peter Tecklenburg is credited with starting what we can only hope is a trend that will spread across South Carolina. His office compared its list of owner-occupied homes with voter registration lists that include voters' ages. Then, the office sent letters to homeowners age 65 or older who were not receiving the Homestead Exemption property tax break.
That's available to anyone whose property is taxed as their owner-occupied residence, as long at they were 65 or older at the start of the year, and have lived in the state for at least 12 months. Homeowners have to apply — just one time — in order to get the break, but lots of people either don't know about it, or they forget to apply after they turn 65.
I wrote about Tecklenburg's initiative in this column on April 21. Three days later, Dorchester County Auditor JJ Messervy's office launched a similar effort, and as of Aug. 21 that outreach resulted in 776 Dorchester County residents receiving the Homestead Exemption, saving them each an average of $300 yearly.
County officials expect that number to grow to about 1,250 by the end of the year.
"I look forward to making this an annual campaign," Messervy said.
In Charleston County, about 4,600 homeowners were contacted by Tecklenburg's office, and 2,320 have so far been approved for the Homestead Exemption. They will collectively save about $522,000 in property taxes this year, and they keep those tax breaks as long as they are in those homes.
It's great to see county governments use data to benefit residents, by combining voter registration lists with property owner lists to identify those missing out on tax breaks. Previously, counties hired data-analysis firms to identify people who were cheating on owner-occupied residence tax breaks, so it's nice to know it works both ways.
This is also a reminder to all South Carolina homeowners. The Homestead Exemption is a valuable property tax break, but you only get it if you apply.
The Homestead Exemption eliminates the first $50,000 of the taxable value of an owner-occupied home. So, if a home is worth $200,000, it's taxed as if it's worth $150,000.
The savings vary by county and municipality, because tax rates vary. In Charleston County, the Homestead Exemption is worth roughly $225 a year, while in Dorchester County it's worth about $300.
Counties and municipalities where housing is less expensive generally have higher tax rates, so the Homestead Exemption is particularly valuable in South Carolina's less affluent places.
"My hope is that most of the auditors in the state will do this," Tecklenburg said. "There could be tens of thousands of people in the state who are missing out on this."
It's great that some counties have made an effort to find people who are missing out on tax breaks, but remember, the efforts were based on voter registration records and not everyone is registered to vote.
Also, in some cases homeowners don't have to be a certain age to qualify for the Homestead Exemption. It's also available to taxpayers who have been "declared totally and permanently disabled by a state or federal agency having the authority to make such a declaration" or are "legally blind as certified by a licensed ophthalmologist," according to the S.C. Department of Revenue.