Lexington County mulls prepaying taxes

Lexington County residents might be able to pay property taxes on the installment plan instead of all at once starting as soon as next year.

Homeowners and businesses would be allowed to make six payments in advance throughout the year instead of paying once annually.

Prepaying estimated taxes in stages would be "a big help" for homeowners and small businesses struggling with tight finances, said County Councilman Bobby Keisler, a Republican from Red Bank.

Paying the tax bill in full amid Christmas holiday spending can be "a hard burden," he said.

Keisler said he plans to be one of the first enrollees in the plan because "I hate writing big checks" on his home and rental buildings.

It was unclear Tuesday how many of South Carolina's 46 counties allow prepayment, essentially an escrow similar to those arranged by mortgage lenders. Its use varies among the largest counties, said county Treasurer Jim Eckstrom.

Up to 400 landowners prepay property taxes annually in Richland County.

Those who do it find it easier to make steady payments instead of saving for a large one, county Treasurer David Adams said.

Still, it's not very popular because "there's a lot of folks who don't want to give government money in advance," he said.

The installment plan proposed in Lexington County would apply to upcoming property tax bills, not those that are delinquent.

Eckstrom's staff would estimate the expected tax bill, paid in five equal installments. A final payment of varying amount - determined in the fall once tax rates are set - would be due by the Jan. 15 annual deadline.

Eckstrom predicted up to 2,500 of 100,000 eligible landowners would sign up for the plan.

Prepayment wouldn't apply to vehicle taxes, due in one sum at various points throughout the year, depending on when a car or truck is purchased.

Prepaying in Lexington County might have a limited appeal, Eckstrom predicted, because people might not be interested in paying in advance.

"I don't see it running away with us," he said.

County Council members were told Tuesday that a prepayment plan can be put in place without hiring extra employees to handle it.

Tax prepayment - if authorized by council members - would be advertised "by word of mouth" and paid for by interest earned on the money, Eckstrom said.

But some council members worry the county would be plagued by requests for refunds and missed payments from taxpayers facing unexpected expenses.

"It gives me pause," said council chairman Jim Kinard, a Swansea Republican.

Eckstrom said he would work with financially pressed taxpayers based on individual circumstances.

But Councilman Billy Derrick, a Democrat from Batesburg-Leesville, said it would be better to set guidelines outlining how refunds would occur and missed payments would be handled.