Slave descendents fight tax hikes
Sapelo Island, Georgia (CNN) -- It's a culture struggling to survive. Fewer than 50 people -- all descendants of slaves -- fear they may soon be taxed out of the property their families have owned since the days of slavery.
They are the Gullah-Geechee people of Sapelo Island off Georgia's coast, near Savannah. This small, simple community is finding itself embroiled in a feud with local officials over a sudden, huge increase in property assessments that are raising property taxes as much as 600% for some. Many say the increase could force them to sell their ancestral properties.
County Attorney Adam Poppell told CNN that the Gullah-Geechee culture is invaluable, but the properties had been historically undervalued due to errors in previous property appraisals.
Sapelo Island, about the size of Manhattan, is a short 20-minute boat ride from Georgia's coast. But in some ways, it seems much farther.
The bumpy, unpaved dirt roads are a constant reminder that this is an island with few services. There are no police officers, fire rescue personnel, doctors or hospitals. There is no school or post office. People drive their garbage to a single garbage compactor. There are no grocery stores. The gas station is open only on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
A ferry makes three round trips each day, with the last departure from the mainland at 5:30 p.m.
Cornelia Bailey has been one of the loudest defenders of the island where she was born and raised.
She's the ninth generation of her family to live on the island, whose slave roots are traced back to Angola. She said the taxes on her one acre property have gone from $600 a year to about $2,300.
"All these years of getting nothing, then all of a sudden, they want to lay this tax on your back and still not give you nothing," she said. "For the last three years, we've been paying $128 a year for garbage collection. I don't even have my green garbage can. Where's my can?"
She added, with a hint of anger in her voice, "You can call 911, but nobody gonna squeal up to your front door, so forget it."
Tax Assessors Board Chairman James Larkin suggests the Sapelo residents brought this issue on themselves, as some began to sell their property to developers and non-islanders who built bigger, upscale vacation homes, causing valuations to increase, and along with them their property taxes. "If they hadn't started selling their property, there wouldn't be a problem," he told CNN.
But Reginald Hall isn't buying that argument. He and his family own three properties on more than seven acres of property on the island. The assessed "fair market value" of their property went from $176,075 in 2011 to $910,333 in 2012.
That brought on increase of more than 500% in property taxes. He is refusing to pay the taxes and he refuses to sell his family land, which he says is worth over $3 million.