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Government, Politics & Issues

St. Louis County has no idea how many plane owners may owe back taxes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 23, 2011 - St. Louis County Revenue Director Eugene Leung acknowledges that his department hasn't a clue how many owners of private planes housed somewhere in the county may owe delinquent personal property taxes because they haven't registered the aircraft. And he doesn't plan to try to find out.

The Revenue Department is only certain about one: the family of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

A representative hand-delivered four checks to the department at 5:15 p.m. Monday totalling $287,283.41. The tally represents unpaid personal property taxes for the last four years on a plane partially owned by her family and housed at Spirit of St. Louis Airport.

The payments were prompted by McCaskill's own discovery that the plane -- which has given her a political headache for weeks -- was also in arrears when it came to county property taxes. She says she was unaware until last week that taxes were due on the plane.

Leung says his department has no plans to hunt up other errant plane owners.

"We just don't have the staff to do that type of investigation," said Leung Tuesday. He explained that the county's personal-property tax field staff consists of four people and a supevisor, with two additional posts now empty due to illness and a vacancy. The field crew primarily is charged, he said, with monitoring equipment purchased by county businesses, although they may tackle occasional cases of unregistered vehicles caught by police during traffic stops.

"It would be pretty tough to have people looking for planes," Leung added.

But St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said in an interview later Tuesday, "If it's something we need to investigate, we'll look into it."

While emphasizing he wasn't commenting on the McCaskill tax matter, Dooley said, "I'm always concerned that everybody pay their fair share of taxes."

Private planes aren't licensed in Missouri -- unlike cars, trucks and boats -- so county officials depend on honest owners to report that they own a plane and house it at Spirit or elsewhere in the county, making the plane subject to personal property taxes.

About 300 individuals or businesses currently do so, Leung said.

"A plane owner is supposed to register a plane with the county," said Mac Scott, Dooley's press secretary. "If they don't, there's no way we would know."

Dooley said, "If we need to send somebody out to Spirit Airport to check things out, we'll do it."

At Spirit, aviation director John Bales said today that roughly 400 planes are housed in and around the airport, situated in west county. Of those planes, 135 lease space in county-owned hangars. Those county-housed planes, he said, are registered with the county and do pay property taxes -- county officials make sure of that.

The big unknown are how many planes are in the private hangars ringing the airport. By Bales' estimate, there are close to 300 of them -- but he emphasizes that number changes daily, as planes come and go. County officials have no power, they said, to check out those hangars to see how many planes are regularly housed, who owns them and if they are properly registered.

McCaskill's family plane appears to be housed in one of those private hangars; Bales said he had no idea the senator's private plane was based at Spirit until the news broke.

No county official would hazard even a guess as to what percentage of the planes in private hangars are, or aren't, paying taxes. But if about 300 owners overall are paying taxes, and 400 planes are regularly using Spirit, the indications are there may be a sizable chunk who are not.

Dooley said, "If we need to send somebody out to Spirit Airport to check things out, we'll do it."

Personal property taxes are assessed differently on a plane, and are based on how much of its flight time is in the state of Missouri. Flight hours outside the state aren't subject to property taxes, Leung said.

For such reasons, the county says it may take awhile to calculate the exact amount that McCaskill's family owes on the plane. The payments submitted Monday, said Leung, are based on estimates that the plane was flown entirely in Missouri. The final bill may end up being less, he added.

Republicans were circulating a document from Leung's office that indicated when interest and penalties were factored in, McCaskill's four-year tax bill on the plane was closer to $320,000.

To reach a final figure, the county must wait on an assessment of the value of the plane. That figure will come from the Missouri Tax Commission, which calculates the value of planes over 3,000 pounds; those weighing less are assessed by local assessors. The McCaskill plane weighs 9,000 pounds, Leung said.

The request for the commission to conduct the assessment is to come from the plane owner. A Tax Commission spokeswoman said it had yet to receive any communication from McCaskill's family, although Leung said the representative who dropped off the check said a letter was in the mail to the commission's offices in Jefferson City.

Now that McCaskill's plane is registered with the county, her family will automatically receive a tax bill from the county every year, Leung said.

Once the plane is sold -- as McCaskill says it soon will be -- the family will need to notify the county to get the plane off its tax rolls.

State Gop Say Controversy May Spur More Challengers

Meanwhile, the Missouri Republican Party kept up its attacks on McCaskill, who has been under fire for weeks over various aspects of her use of the family plane for official and political business.

State GOP executive director Lloyd Smith said in a news conference call that the party has expanded its formal complaint filed earlier with the Senate Ethics Committee. One of the reasons stems from McCaskill's admission in a press conference call Monday that part of a family-plane flight initally billed to taxpayers did include two political stops -- which could be a violation of Senate rules.

McCaskill said the stops were a minor part of the whole flight, and would likely meet Senate guidelines. The political stops were in addition to a 2007 flight, also billed to taxpayers, that was totally political. McCaskill says the billing was in error, and notes that her family has repaid the cost of all 89 flights billed to taxpayers, although 87 appear to comply with Senate rules.

Smith said that the state GOP is not taking issue with her use of a private plane, either hers or chartered, but rather with the amount of costs assessed taxpayers, the unpaid property taxes and the improperly billed political flights.

He renewed the party's longstanding call for the release of tax records for the two companies that own the plane -- Sunset Cove LLC and its parent, Timesavers LLC. Both are co-owned by McCaskill's husband, Joseph Shepard and other investors. Shepard has declined to release the companies' financial records.

Smith indicated that more Republicans may be considering a bid against McCaskill in 2012, but he declined to get specific. So far, she has two GOP challengers: St. Louis lawyer Ed Martin and former Missouri Secretary of State Sarah Steelman .

What he could say, Smith said, was that "there are people who are upset about Claire McCaskill's hypocrisy" and may run themselves, or assist others.

U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country, and former state GOP chairman Ann Wagner are contemplating candidacies. Sources say that some party activists have sought out U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth, and asked him to recosider a bid. He had said in an interview last month that he was not interested.

Smith said that the party still have more to probe about the plane. He notes that the hefty checks covering McCaskill's overdue property taxes came from Sunset Cove. The money indicates that Sunset Cove may be more profitable that McCaskill's financial disclosure reports have stated, Smith said.

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