South Carolina’s longest-serving tax assessor is retiring this week, after nearly four decades of shaping policies and educating taxpayers, politicians and peers in the profession.
At 77, Richland County tax assessor John Cloyd ends a career that has spanned the offices of nine county administrators, overseen seven property reassessments and spearheaded what he called a “herculean” 21/2-year data transfer from paper records to the county’s first computerized property tax records system.
“I’m serious about what I do,” said Cloyd, the county’s assessor since 1978. “I take the responsibility of raising more than $400 million to fund schools and functions of government, so failure is not an option.”
In his tenure, he has seen the county’s property values swell from $1 billion to $23.5 billion. A Richland County native, Cloyd has seen cycles of development that have included a fad of “McMansions” cropping up in older neighborhoods in the early 2000s, as well as the growth of subdivisions and the disappearing of vacant properties in downtown Columbia.
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Overall, Cloyd said, the county’s growth has been “orderly and good.”
It’ll be unlikely for the county to find anyone with close to Cloyd’s experience to fill his role, said Richland County Administrator Tony McDonald who, like most people working in county government, has never known another person in the assessor’s seat. The search is beginning for a new assessor, and while there’s no timeline for hiring, McDonald said he’s hopeful to find a replacement by the summer.
Cloyd’s role has been significant to the county, where his office sets the values of nearly 170,000 properties, ultimately translating into the amount of property tax revenue the government collects. But Cloyd also has been an invaluable figure statewide in helping to shape property tax laws, acting as a knowledgeable voice in the ears of state legislators and as a liaison between assessing officials and lawmakers.
Darlington County Assessor Kyle Johnson, president of the County Assessors of South Carolina, described Cloyd as “a very influential person” and “a statesman.”
When state legislators sought advice on changes to property tax laws, they would turn to Cloyd, said Sandy Houck, special projects coordinator for the state’s Department of Revenue.
“He has been relied on quite heavily,” Houck said. “When it comes to some things, he can be strong-willed, but he also knows how to be diplomatic to accomplish something that may not happen immediately. ... I don’t know that anybody could ever say that John has not always tried to do the right thing.”
Cloyd said he has sought to use his influence to make the state tax system more user-friendly, encouraging changes such as broadening the timeframe to file for legal residency and clarifying the tax definitions of certain property types, including agricultural land classification.
“You could make meaningful change, make it easier, make it friendly and make everybody as happy as they can be,” Cloyd said, adding with a chuckle, “if you can assume nobody really wants to pay taxes.”
Even when he was advocating for a more sensible tax code, Cloyd was unmovable on rules that were on the books, with a steadfastness that could sometimes disgruntle taxpayers.
“I think the largest criticism of me is that I follow the law,” Cloyd said. “If you have to file an appeal within a certain time, you’ve got all the time in the world to do it, 90 days. The 91st day is not the proper time. And people will criticize you for that.”
After the county’s 2009 property reassessment, in the midst of the economic recession, Cloyd and his office drew the ire of many home and business owners for reassessed property values they believed were too high. The appeals rate spiked, and some taxpayers complained of finding the assessor’s office and its appeals board impenetrable.
But those kinds of scenarios just come with the territory, Cloyd said.
“My job should be to help you understand what we’ve done,” Cloyd said. “If people do an appeal and see that we made a mistake, we can correct it. But just because people complain doesn’t mean that we were wrong.”
His dedication to the job has been undeniable – his wife, Cookie, once asking him, “Are you married to this job?” And after working well past the typical age of retirement, Cloyd said he’s looking forward to spending more time traveling with Cookie and their family.
An assessor’s job, said Jacky Hunter, former president and current board member of the S.C. Association of Assessing Officials, is to be “fair and equitable.”
And, Cloyd’s peers seem to agree, that has been Cloyd’s reputation.
“He’s just a good example for assessors now and in the future,” Johnson said. “Just like a George Washington and Benjamin Franklin type, you just knew there was something about him that you needed to emulate.”