There are some real complexities involved in understanding government budgets and public sector financing, but there also are some very simple basic truths as well. Government gets money from those governed, by taxing them, and anytime one taxpayer gets an exemption to reduce or avoid a tax, it increases the amount that must be paid by other taxpayers.
That’s why we’re glad to see the county’s Tax Assessor’s office aggressively pursuing those who claim more than one homestead exemption in order to reduce their annual property tax bills.
The Assessor’s office has contracted with a North Carolina firm to review homestead exemption paperwork in order to find those who may be getting exemptions from property taxes that they don’t deserve. Tax Assessor Mary Kilpatrick believes the effort could net the county as much as $2.5 million over the next three years.
At a time when all governments are feeling the impact of the nation’s weak economy, any influx of unexpected funds is noteworthy, but that’s not the main reason the county is to be congratulated on such a course of action. It’s a fairness issue.
Simply put, what one taxpayer avoids, another taxpayer has to pay.
Not every property owner who has two homestead exemptions filed with the county is an intentional scofflaw. Some instances that will be uncovered by the county’s investigation will be the result of benign neglect or ignorance of the law rather than intentional fraud. But there are those who knowingly and gladly take advantage of the system to get tax breaks for which they aren’t qualified, and those people should pay a penalty for doing so.
The county’s board of tax assessors has taken a reasonable approach in deciding to give those involved in certain potentially confusing estate situations a year to clear up the paperwork before imposing any sort of fine or penalty for violation of the homestead law. And there may be other cases that prove deserving of individual attention due to unusual circumstances.
By and large, however, the law is pretty clear. Property owners can only claim one homestead exemption, and those who claim more than one in order to reduce their property tax burden are violating the law. When they do, those who properly pay their taxes each year have to shoulder more than their appropriate share of the financial burden.
Still in the early stages, the county’s probe into homestead exemption claims already has found some 1,600 violations. We look forward to learning the final total, and to knowing that those identified as breaking the exemption law have paid a reasonable penalty for doing so.
After all, it’s only fair.