By Mike McCombs
For the second time, add Beaufort County to the list of plaintiffs suing Beaufort County auditor Jim Beckert.
The county, represented by attorneys M. Dawes Cook and John Fletcher of Barnwell, Whaley, Patterson & Helm, LLC, is essentially suing Beckert in an effort to force him to do his job.
“Defendant Beckert has had (and continues to have) and contentious and adversarial relationship with various other officials and employees of Plaintiff Beaufort County. This contentiousness has manifested itself in Defendant Beckert’s frequent threats or promises not to do things that state law plainly requires him to do,” the suit alleges. “Defendant Beckert has repeatedly sought to usurp the power of other officials and officers and to avoid fulfilling his legal obligations when they are at odds with his own personal wishes.”
As an elected official, Beckert can’t be disciplined by the county and can only be removed by the governor, which is not likely to happen. Gov. Henry McMaster has indicated he would likely only consider removing an elected official if that official were charged with a crime. And still, that’s no guarantee.
Ultimately, the county is seeking that Beckert be compelled to do what he is “statutorily required to do.”
This is the second time Beaufort County has sued Beckert in an effort to get him to do his job. The county previously filed suit in September 2020. That suit has been combined with the Town of Hilton Head Island’s suit against Beaufort County and remains pending.
In that suit, the County took issue with two of Beckert’s acts, or failures to act.
Firstly, Beckert refused to include service charges related to the County providing law enforcement services to the Town of Hilton Head Island on those citizens’ tax bills, saying he did not believe the county had the authority to do so.
Secondly, “for the 2020 tax year, the proper tax millage to produce revenue equivalent to the relevant debt service is 4.8 mils for Rural & Critical Lands debt service” as reflected in the county budget ordinance. Beckert, who is supposed to use no discretion in levying for debt service, instead imposed a higher millage rate (5.8), which he unilaterally determined. This caused a delay in 2020 tax bills.
According to the suit, the issues brought forward in this lawsuit involve his conduct that violated state laws. They are:
Unauthorized conduct with regard to special tax districts. Beckert is accused of failing to assess and collect revenue from certain tax districts, in effect “abolishing” those districts, which only Council has the authority to do.
Failure to maintain or produce an abatement book. County Auditors are required to keep as a permanent record in his/her office a book in which he/she enters separately each abatement of taxes granted and allowed. Beckert has not produced one upon request since 2017 and did not create or maintain one for 2020.
4 percent vs. 6 percent tax issues. S.C. law permits the assessor to change the assessment on residential properties from 4 to 6 percent if it is believed the 4 percent assessment was wrongfully claimed. Aggrieved owners may appeal to the Board of Assessment Appeals. The assessor is not permitted to have any role in this process. The County cites at least one instance where Beckert has interfered in the process and believes there to be more instances.
Refusal to adopt assessor’s valuations. Beckert has begun to refuse to adopt proper valuations of the assessor and has also begun to refuse to calculate interest on underpayments and overpayments.
Refusal to comply with dispute resolution process. Beckert is supposed to notify the offices of the county treasurer and county assessor of applications for tax refunds. Beckert has stopped doing so. The County believes Beckert is adjudicating them himself.
Failure to comply with the Bailey Bill. Under the bill, the County may grant a special property tax assessment to real property that is “rehabilitated historic property” or low and moderate income rental property. Once the special assessment is granted, the owner can apply to the auditor for the special assessment. Beckert is allegedly refusing to apply the special assessments granted by the County. He has no discretion to do this.
Defamatory statements and interfering with matters outside his statutory duties. Beckert allegedly continues to make defamatory, disparaging and disrespectful statements about Beaufort County and its officials and employees. He has sent defamatory letters to external auditors, orchestrated the filing of a baseless grievance and interfered with the operation of other County officials and offices.
The County is asking for a writ of mandamus, compelling Beckert to perform his duties, as well as a declaratory judgment and an injunction requiring him to do his job.
Beckert, elected to a four-year term in 2018, is also facing two separate harassment suits from Beaufort County Treasurer Maria Walls and former Beaufort County Financial Officer Alicia Holland.
Last year, the county moved Beckert’s office from the Beaufort County Administration Building to an office in the Beaufort Industrial Village.
Mike McCombs is the editor of The Island News and can be reached at TheIslandNews@gmail.com.