How many qualify?
Number of residents 85 years or older:
Area Number Percent of total pop.
Berkeley County 1,451 0.8
Charleston County 5,842 1.7
Dorchester County 1,365 1.0
South Carolina 70,701 1.5
Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments; U.S. Census Bureau
South Carolina consumers age 85 and older are supposed to get a sales tax break when they shop, but few apparently do.
Maybe that’s because the 1 percent break was passed about 30 years ago and many have simply forgotten about it.
Maybe it’s because it affects such a small slice of the state’s population — less than 2 percent —a demographic that doesn’t get out to shop as much as they used to.
The break took effect in 1984, when South Carolina raised its sales tax 1 percent to fund the Education Improvement Act, and it applies to sales of clothes, services, convenience store items and liquor; it doesn’t lower the 3 percent sales tax on unprepared food.
But no one seems to be in charge of getting the word out, and the state has no statistics about how many receive it — or don’t receive it even though they’re entitled to it.
The issue is on the radar of Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell, who heads the state’s Office on Aging. An elderly resident complained about the problem earlier this year, and McConnell wrote to the state Department of Revenue. The department’s director, William Blume, wrote back vowing to communicate the break’s details with AARP, the state Chamber of Commerce and others.
Patrick Cobb, a South Carolina spokesman with AARP, said he has seen the signs in stores saying people who are 85 or older are entitled to a 1 percent sales tax deduction but was unsure that was actually the case.
Cobb said his group is working to get the word out.
“For some folks, 1 percent of a total bill is a large sum of money no matter how small the amount,” he said. “As we look at issues that are important to all older South Carolinians, this is one that we will add to our checklist of ‘Did you know?’ tax breaks and deductions and help folks understand how to make sure that they receive the reduction.”
Likewise, Elizabeth Bernat, director of Senior Services with Roper St. Francis Healthcare, wasn’t aware of it.
John W. Shealey, 90, said he is accustomed to getting sales tax discounts because he is a World War II veteran, but he didn’t know about this additional break.
“It’s news to me until you brought it up,” he said. “How was I supposed to have known?”
To receive the break, seniors must ask for it and may have to show an ID as proof of their age. Retailers also are supposed to have a sign posted on their door or by cash registers letting shoppers 85 and older know about the exemption, but the agency doesn’t conduct routine checks and instead relies on people calling in.
It’s unclear how often the S.C. Department of Revenue audits businesses to ensure they’re complying; the agency does not discuss its audit practices, spokeswoman Samantha Cheek said.
“We do urge individuals to contact DOR when they believe a retailer is not collecting the proper amount of tax or if the retailer is not honoring the 1 percent exemption for those 85 years old and older,” she added.
She said only “on rare occasions” has the department been contacted by individuals regarding the break.
Bernat said she will try to get the word out. She already told both Shealey and Verna Powell, 85, of James Island, who soon used her knowledge to save a few dollars on a big purchase.
“They didn’t even ask when my birthday was or anything,” Powell said. “I don’t consider myself poor, but I live alone and every little bit helps.”
Shealey said he hopes others get the word —and the break —they’re entitled to. “Naturally, everybody is always interested in saving a dollar or penny.”
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.