More county government issues

Margaret Brackett Contributing Columnist

March 31, 2014

The following is a continuation of Margaret Brackett’s interview with Wayne Adams, Newberry County Administrator.

• The current County Council has now been together for a while. What have been the body’s major accomplishments, and what sets its collective agenda apart from past efforts at governing the County?

Two major achievements have been the maintaining of a steady property tax rate and investments to attract industry. Another one – one we proudly share credit for with the voters of Newberry County – is the greatly enhanced educational opportunities that have come with the new Piedmont Tech campus, which was part of the capital project sales tax referendum. And the three really go together – stable tax rate, top-notch locations for industrial development, and education for our workforce. The best attribute about the current Council is that does have a plan. It has focus, and it has priorities. This gives Council an identity and a direction that makes the citizens feel easier about relying on them. This is aided by the fact that members of Council don’t have disagreements that are heated or personal.

This Council’s courage is perhaps reflected best in its refusal to be distracted by the fact that demands will always far exceed resources. It takes political courage to say that some things are more important than others and to chart a course.

Unfortunately, making everyone happy is not an option, and progress requires compromise.

• One of Council’s major decisions in recent years has been to convert J.F. Hawkins and Springfield Place to private ownership. The decision was somewhat controversial at the time. How has this decision worked out, and would you make the same decision today?

Reviews from the public concerning the new ownership (Prestige Health Care) have been overwhelmingly positive. J.F. Hawkins has improved by leaps and bounds, going from a two-star facility in the Medicare/Medicaid rating system when the County sold it to a four-star facility in December of 2012, and, as of January of this year, to a five-star facility. Five stars is the highest rating possible. The nursing home business is highly specialized and intensely regulated. The fact that our long-term care facilities now have the support system and oversight of a respected company in the long-term care industry is making all the difference. It was a hard decision to sell these facilities, but it was the right decision, by any measure.

When counties came into the long-term care business, it was largely as a solution to housing the elderly poor. But now these facilities are home to a mix of patients, rich and poor alike, all expecting the best medical care possible. And because of programs like Medicare and Medicaid, people of all social classes can get that care in virtually the same setting. But that requires in-depth knowledge of medicine, regulatory environment, and billing strategies to maximize revenues. As part of a natural evolution, this is moving long-term care outside the purview of county governments.

• What issues concerning Newberry County Government does County Council see now ?

County government is a complex undertaking. The range of services Council provides is broad: law enforcement, court operations, solid waste disposal, road maintenance, building inspections and code enforcement, recreation, GIS data bases, property valuation – the list seems to go on forever. Each of these areas is important to our citizens, and each function is a specialty all its own. Paying for these services within the limits of the tax base and state restrictions on fiscal autonomy is one difficulty. Another is staffing the positions necessary to make it all run smoothly. Yet another challenge is working with a combination of elected, appointed, and hired department heads. This makes diplomacy and cooperation far more important than most probably realize. All in all, county government requires a unique combination of art and science.

• Property taxation, while administered at the county level, is actually state policy and law. Periodically, property values are reassessed, or given updated values, for the purposes of taxation. How does the County incorporate the new taxation rate with these updated values?

State law requires that counties perform a reassessment of real property values every five years. On the real property side, the Tax Assessor conducts this work. Manufacturing-related real property is reassessed by the SC Department of Revenue. DOR also reassesses values for vehicles, but they do so annually, rather than every five years, in order to reflect depreciation. They do this with manufacturing equipment (as opposed to manufacturing real estate) as well.

For any year in which a reassessment is implemented – this year will be an implementation year in Newberry County – a millage rollback formula is calculated. That formula takes the value of all property taxes paid in the prior year and divides it by a number equal to the new assessed value of the tax base minus the values of any properties that were not taxed in the prior year.

• Do all property values increase equally in a reassessment?

No. State law requires that all new values reflect closely what the property would sell for in a market transaction/sale, and that can change for various reasons from one reassessment to the next.

There is also a special provision for property values that have been previously capped for tax purposes. In past decades, largely for political reasons, many counties routinely valued properties lower than market value. However, when pressures to deliver more services grew, some counties raised those values abruptly during a single reassessment year, in order to collect the taxes as intended under state law. The General Assembly intervened to say that, in any given reassessment year, the most a property value can be raised for tax purposes is the lower of either 1) 15% of market value or 2) the property’s true marked value. Through this process, all properties will be eventually pay property taxes based on the true market value of their property.