Columbia County officials are scratching their heads over sales tax revenues, which appear to be lagging this year despite an improving economy.
In the first three months of this year, the county received about 4 percent less in Local Option Sales Tax distributions from the State Department of Revenue than during the same period of 2013, according to figures supplied by the state.
The largest portion of that reduction can be attributed to the state’s new Title Ad Valorem Tax or TAVT on motor vehicles, which began in March 2013. The same law that established the TAVT also did away with most sales taxes imposed on the purchase of new or used cars. Instead of sales tax, car purchasers pay a title transfer tax amounting to a one-time 6.5 percent of the vehicle’s value. That tax is supposed to increase to 7 percent this year. Car owners also no longer pay an annual ad valorem tax when they renew their automobile registrations.
County Finance Director Leeanne Reece said it is difficult to determine the full impact of that change in the tax system.
“It has really been kind of hard of us to tell because we aren’t comparing apples to apples,” Reece said.
During the first quarter of 2014, Columbia County received an additional $1.2 million in revenue from TAVT, but that amount is offset set a reduction in annual ad valorem tax receipts the county is no longer collecting on vehicles.
Reece said that taking all those things into consideration, it appears the county’s combined TAVT and sales tax tax revenue in has grown about 1 percent over 2013.
Considering how the economy has improved in the past year, 1 percent doesn’t seem like very much, County Administrator Scott Johnson said.
The county has to rely on the Department of Revenue for accurate returns, he said. The state doesn’t share tax collection data in the kind of detail that would allow the county to check the collection numbers, Johnson said.
“That’s where our frustration lies in all of this,” he said. “We can’t confrm the growth that we are seeing around the county.”
Johnson said the state provides figures on different sectors of business, but not how much sale tax each business is paying to the state.
“We think our sales tax revenues should be growiing more, but there is no way to confirm that,” he said.
Johnson said one area of concern is businesses located in the 30907 ZIP code area. A large portion of that area is in Richmond County, but there is no way to determine if tax from Columbia County businesses are being misallocated to Augusta.
“We would like to be able to confirm that we are getting those sale tax dollars, but we can’t,” Johnson said.
Still, Johnson said he is optimistic about future growth in the coming year. He said new retailers, such as the Gander Mountain store set to open in October, should be another boost to sales tax revenues.
“That is something that I will be monitoring when when that store comes on line,” he said. “We should see a jump in sales tax revenue.”
If that doesn’t occurr, however, it will only deepen the mystery and officials’ frustrations.
“If not, then we will have some questions to ask the state,” he said.