Taxes Threaten Gullah Community

Kim Severson of The New York Times explains how a sudden spike in taxes is threatening a Georgia Gullah village:

Sapelo Island, a tangle of salt marsh and sand reachable only by boat, holds the largest community of people who identify themselves as saltwater Geechees. Sometimes called the Gullahs, they have inhabited the nation's southeast coast for more than two centuries. Theirs is one of the most fragile cultures in America.

These Creole-speaking descendants of slaves have long held their land as a touchstone, fighting the kind of development that turned Hilton Head and St. Simons Islands into vacation destinations. Now, stiff county tax increases driven by a shifting economy, bureaucratic bumbling and the unyielding desire for a house on the water have them wondering if their community will finally succumb to cultural erosion.

"The whole thing just smells," said Jasper Watts, whose mother, Annie Watts, 73, still owns the three-room house with a tin roof that she grew up in.

She paid $362 in property taxes last year for the acre she lives on. This year, McIntosh County wants $2,312, a jump of nearly 540 percent.

The chief reasons for the tax hike are an increase in property values, which won't do you much good if you aren't planning to sell your land, and an increase in government services, which won't do you much good if you aren't among the people the services reach:

"We're rural, we're on the coast and we're desirable," [County Manager Brett] Cook said. "When the market got hot six or seven years ago, a lot of individuals holding $15,000 or $20,000 lots on the marsh could sell them for $100,000 or $150,000."

The county also started a new garbage pickup service and added other services, which contributed to the higher tax rates, he said. Sapelo Island residents, however, still have to haul their trash to the dump.

"Our taxes went up so high, and then you don't have nothing to show for it," said Cornelia Walker Bailey, the island's unofficial historian. "Where is my fire department? Where are my water resources? Where is my paved road? Where are the things our tax dollars pay for?"

Here, where land is usually handed down or sold at below-market rates to relatives, Ms. Bailey has come to hold four pieces of property. She lives on one, which is protected from the tax increases by a homestead exemption. The rest will cost her 600 percent more in property taxes. "I think it's an effort to erode everyone out of the last private sector of this island," she said.

As Severson notes, the Gullah community, called Hog Hammock, is the "only private land left on the island, almost 97 percent of which is owned by the state and given over to nature preserves, marine research projects and a plantation mansion built in 1802."

Meanwhile, Cook claims that the

local government does a lot to support the Geechee culture.

"It's a wonderful history and a huge draw for our ecotourism," he said.

This summer, he pointed out, the county worked with the Smithsonian to host a festival that culminated in a concert with members of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, who practice a style of singing and hand claps developed by slaves.

I hate to spell out the obvious, but the creation of a theme-park Gullahland isn't inconsistent with the death of an actual living Gullah community.

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  • Tim||

    Where is my fire department? Where are my water resources? Where is my paved road? Where is my home invading, dog shooting SWAT team breaking down my door at 4AM because they got the wrong island?

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    Sung along to the tune of Once in a Lifetime.

  • BarryD||

    I suspect the said SWAT team will show up sooner or later.

  • RBS||

    Brett Cook sounds like a tool.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    Where are the things our tax dollars pay for?

    You're not supposed to ask that question, slave. Or any question.

  • Tim||

    Teacher pensions. Pot snooping helicopters. Subsidized flood insurance for the McMansions that will soon replace your hovels.

  • o3||

    flood ins doesnt apply to climate chg flooding...and neither do property taxes

  • R C Dean||

    flood ins doesnt apply to climate chg flooding

    Nor should it, even at the projected worst-case rates of sea level increase.

    If you've got a hundred years before your property is flooded, I don't see that as a "risk" you need insurance for.

  • LTC(ret) John||

    "climate chg flooding"

    Oh, saw that in the post, did you?

  • Almanian's Evil Twin||

    I never understood where Gullah Gullah Island was. Now I know. Thanks

  • sarcasmic||

    When you can't evict the tenants outright, just raise the rent.

  • Surly Chef||

    Taxes don't magically create ROADZ, apparently.

  • Citizen Nothing||

    Several Gullah families got rich selling land on Hilton Head. And good for them. Of course, taxes should never make you sell when you don't want to.
    Standard libertarian disclaimer, but as an alternative to higher property taxes, how about a "severance" tax that you pay only upon sale of the land?

  • Citizen Nothing||

    The "severance" based on the actual sale price, not what some bureaucrat claims it's worth.

  • Surly Chef||

    There are countless ways to extract revenue from transactions, that are simple, logical and don't require people to pay rent on stuff they already own. It's just harder to bully specific people that way.

  • ||

    You can't fund services with a "severance" tax.

    Short of an out-and-out replacement of the property tax with a sales tax, I'm not sure what other solution there is.

  • R C Dean||

    You can't fund services a bloated and intrusive bureaucracy with a "severance" tax.

    Bug, or feature?

  • ||

    sigh...c'mon, back away from the rhetoric. Even minarchies need some form of general taxation.

    I think that overall, the property tax is one of the better local forms of taxation. It's at least marginally progressive, generally non-intrusive, simple to collect, and transparent. But a defect is that sudden valuation shifts, which can occur when preferences change, do lead to outcomes like the above.

    If you accept the property tax mechanism, there's not much of an alternative. If you reject it, what's the replacement?

  • Emmerson Biggins||

    I think it's one of the worst. If you want to live on your hunk of land and raise your own food and not consume any services, that should be free. Even in a Minarchy.

    Replacement: Fee for Services.

  • ||

    Fee for services can't cover everything. Many services are not individualized.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    Many services are not individualized.

    Such as?

  • ||

    Oh c'mon. The basic operating expense of Town Hall are not able to be covered by fees.

  • np||

    why not? T = town hall cost (maintenance, cleaning, etc), P = people in the area. Usage fee: T/P

  • ||

    why not? T = town hall cost (maintenance, cleaning, etc), P = people in the area. Usage fee: T/P

    Because that's a fucking property tax you nitwit. A property tax simply apportions that by wealth based on property ownership.

  • np||

    Like I mentioned below with the ability to opt in, the whole point of fee means something that you use.

    A property tax is simply another tax that goes right into the general fund regardless of the intent to tax based on "wealth" by property ownership. How that even be when people aren't even generating from them? Furthermore, that wealth that the property is supposed to reflect is itself already taxed

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    Oh c'mon. The basic operating expense of Town Hall are not able to be covered by fees.

    You said services. Show me a service that is not individualized. What is inside City Hall? Administration of services the city provides, correct? If so, your fees would have to cover this overhead. Just like any other service provider.

  • ||

    General building expenses are the most obvious example. Selectmen hold a meeting. Who pays for the light? Heat? Just the people using the services of the town?

    Maybe that might work. But there are other areas that are town wide services. T own attorney fees are the most obvious example.

  • Ptah-Hotep||

    General building expenses are the most obvious example. Selectmen hold a meeting. Who pays for the light? Heat? Just the people using the services of the town?

    Maybe that might work. But there are other areas that are town wide services. T own attorney fees are the most obvious example.

    You can still have a fee for service to pay these things. To take an example from the corporate world. A company has a corporate office building. How does it get paid for? How is the maintance, heating, lighting, etc. paid for? How about the corporate attorneys?

    They are all paid for by the the revenues you make by selling a product or service. These overhead items have to be calculated into the price you charge for your products or services.

  • The Hammer||

    Voluntary contributions?

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    agree...until google fixes it. the power of technology will help optimize results as it has for phone, power and other individual costs that used to be grouped and basically taxed.

  • Proprietist||

    Property taxes are worse than land taxes but better than sales or income taxes. At least with property taxes, there is the recognition that we are paying for legal protection of our property and our property gains value from, say, a great local public school district or other government services, unlike sales and income taxes which have little to nothing to do with the role of government.

  • Dr. Frankenstein||

    What's the difference between a land tax and property tax?

  • robc||

    A property tax also taxes improvements.

    A land tax taxes the unimproved land, which means it collects the "rents" for owning the land.

    Only rent-seekers would oppose a land tax. :)

  • robc||

    A land tax example. My "neighbor" is an empty lot. That lot is worth roughly the same as my lot, so in a land tax situation, we would pay roughly the same amount in tax.

    However, in a property tax situation, like really exists, Im paying on about 150k more than he is.

  • np||

    I view property taxes as inherently worse, both irrational and unethical. Why is land any different from other property? You buy a TV. Taxes are paid on it. You don't continuously pay taxes for that TV every year.

    The ideal replacement is simply to tax purely based on services that people can opt into (which these people aren't even getting despite the huge property tax)

  • The Hammer||

    You don't continuously pay taxes for that TV every year.

    Barack Obama: This gives me an idea.

  • robc||

    Technically, with a property tax you should be paying the tax on the TV every year.

    I do on my car for example. They just dont care about the piddling stuff, so havent put it into law.

  • Dr. Frankenstein||

    You pay every year in Great Britian for your TV

  • ||

    I think that overall, the property tax is one of the better local forms of taxation . . . generally non-intrusive . . .

    And if you can't pay it, men with guns will come to remove you from your own home so they can auction it off. At least that's my understanding. So maybe you could clarify the "ono-intrusive" part for us?

    If you accept the property tax mechanism, there's not much of an alternative. If you reject it, what's the replacement?

    My thinking is, if something is plain tyrannical, you shouldn't ask yourself what you're going to replace it with; you simply eliminate it.

  • R C Dean||

    sigh...c'mon, back away from the rhetoric.

    No thanks. Most of my local taxes are expended on a bloated bureaucracy, not on essential services. I'll call it like I see it.

  • robc||

    Sure you can. In any reasonably sized area, there will be continuous turnover.

    In high turnover years, you save funds for low turnover years.

  • ||

    How do you even determine the tax rate? One of the key features of what I call a New England style Property Tax is that the rate is whatever it takes to balance the budget. There is no fixed rate. It constantly floats. This further helps to keep budgets in line.

    Any sort of "severance" tax would leave little incentive to control annual budgets, particular since those impacted would be in a significant minority.

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    The rate "floats"???? Holy shit! How do you know if you'll be able to pay your property taxes from year to year then? The rate may be high in Texas, but atleast I know in any given year whether or not I'll be able to afford my house and I have a right to vote down any increases in property tax.

  • Spoonman.||

    It is floaty in Pennsylvania as well and it's total bullshit.

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    oh god...*shudder*.

    im moving there in a month.

  • Spoonman.||

    Where in PA are you moving to?

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    Pittsburgh area (woo Marcellus Shale)

  • ||

    Because any local government that tries to pass a budget that inflates things by more than 3% will be tarred and feathered.

    Remember that the budget in the Town Meeting format needs to be approved by the voters. And in NH under SB2, that's a town-wide vote...not just a voice vote of the stragglers who decide to show up to town meeting in person. And if the budget is voted down, a "default budget" of last years budget plus/minus agreed on contract adjustments, is passed.

    If you want fixed rates, guess what...you get more taxes by other means. Floating rates lock down budget increases.

  • ||

    You're essentially arguing that no one can ever own land free and clear.

    I understand if you say something like, "If you don't pay this tax, don't expect the cops, fire dept., etc. to ever respond to your property." But it sounds like that's already the case, even with the tax increases.

    The people on this island don't give a shit about your town hall on the mainland. If you can sieze property through taxation, then someone can never own property. If I own something, I don't have to pay other people for the privledge.

    Right now I don't own my car or my land. They may be paid off, sure, but if I don't pony up when the tax-man cometh, then I lose them. That means I do not actually own them. And it's fucking bullshit.

  • ||

    You're essentially arguing that no one can ever own land free and clear.

    I'm arguing that the tradeoffs in that system are worth the inherent flaws. I know some fantasize about living off the grid, but it doesn't concern me that this fantasy isn't viable under a property tax system.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    The "float" is actually a great thing, implemented correctly. In some states, the rate floats to whatever is revenue neutral, so that fluctuations in property values changes the *rate*, not your tax bill.

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    That works great when everything is going up...and sucks people dry when things are on the way down...but the state stays whole I guess.

  • ||

    There is no correlation between floating tax rates and overall real estate market prices. The 2008 collapse had no impact on property taxes in the Northeast. Valuations went down, rates went up, taxes collected remained flat.

  • ||

    ...but it doesn't concern me that this fantasy isn't viable under a property tax system.

    "I realize that you have a principaled argument against this, but I don't give a shit. Give me money or go to jail."

  • ||

    It does concern me. Thanks for dismissing my viewpoint because it doesn't allow you to justify your violence.

  • ||

    It does concern me.

    Good. I didn't dismiss it as illegitimate. I dismissed it for me. That's a preference you have that I don't share with you.

  • R C Dean||

    This further helps to keep budgets in line.

    Counterintuitive. If the tax will automatically increase to whatever level is necessary to fund spending, where's the incentive to keep spending down?

  • ||

    Because the property tax bill, which is only paid twice a year, is probably the largest single check most homeowners write. People are sensitive to the slightest increase.

  • BarryD||

    Place is still a fucking swamp, too.

    Nobody warned me to cover my entire body with DEET before exiting the plane on HH. By the time I got across the tarmac to the terminal, I was covered in bug bites.

    But I'm with you on the severance tax or something like that. I understand the purpose of (some) property tax, though it should be low and should not be the funding source for schools (how does THAT make sense?). But the value of the property shouldn't be the owner's problem -- it counts for almost nothing unless and until you want to sell.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    These people are shirking their patriotic duty to provide ever-increasing tax revenue for the State by clinging to their subsistence indolence. How dare they?

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    Indeed

    See
    re: Indian forced migration.

    The state determines the best use, sucks to be someone opposed to it...

  • The Late P Brooks||

    In high turnover years, you save funds for low turnover years.

    Haha, you slay me.

  • gaijin||

    Isn't this the same community that Pat Conroy wrote about in The Water is Wide?

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Similar, but that was in South Carolina.

  • Ryan60657||

    So we develop the island, and then when it's destroyed by a hurricane four years later, the schmucks in NY, TX, IL, MT get to bail out all the rich people again...

  • Lost_In_Translation||

    NY, TX, IL, MT

    Well TX has got to bail out from that list. Ike raked in billions for us from the federal kitty.

  • Dr. Frankenstein||

    The power to tax is the power to destroy. - John Marshal

  • Lyle||

    Higher property tax is better than higher income tax. Looks like they'll be forced to sell or make their acre more profitable.

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