If Christmas season is the biggest time of the year for retailers, this must be like Christmas for Columbia County's tax office.
Property tax bills have already hit most mailboxes, with payment due Nov. 15. In past years the bills wouldn't have gone out for a couple of weeks, but tax officials wanted to give taxpayers plenty of time to digest this year's changes.
Ordinarily, it would sound like weasel-wording to describe the tax increase as a "change." But it's actually more accurate. As a couple of recent examples in a News-Times story by Preston Sparks demonstrated, many taxpayers will pay less this year despite higher assessments and the county's 1.6 mill fire tax increase.
It all adds up this way: The county's private fire service is now paid for under contract from county taxes. Homeowners no longer have to pay a fire fee. Collection of the private fees also was notoriously unreliable. Tax-paying compliance is closer to 100 percent, so with more people paying, the share collected from each homeowner can be lower.
Thus, property owner Charles Granade of Evans -- used as a random example of a mid-range taxpayer -- sees his tax bill rise about $100, after an increase in his property value and inclusion of $89.95 for fire taxes. But Granade comes out ahead because he no longer has to pay a fire fee of $171. He'll also be able to deduct all those taxes from his income tax next year, yielding additional savings.
Not everyone will be so lucky. Those who freeloaded off the private fire system and refused to pay their fees -- as many as half of the residents in some areas of the county -- will now have little choice but to pay the county assessment. Even if the figure is lower than what their fire fee was, paying anything is more than paying nothing.
Owners of large tracts of land are getting hit with higher bills, too. While the fire fees applied only to homes, the fire tax is applied on all taxable property -- which includes not just land, but cars, boats and other vehicles.
The best news for Columbia County taxpayers would be that the more-reliable tax collections will result in greater overall savings. It may be wishful thinking, but if this switch to a fire tax brings in enough money, maybe a tax cut could even be in the works.
It may not be like Christmas, but it would be a pretty good gift.
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