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Government, Politics & Issues

County assessor's first year has seen high-profile battles over planes, casinos

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 30, 2011 - As 2011 comes to a close, the St. Louis County assessor's office is hoping for a new round of checks for personal property taxes from the 83 newly found or reported airplanes, helicopters and hot-air balloons recently added to the county's rolls.

But the office may have a long delay before its assessment battle with a couple of casinos pays off. Pinnacle's River City casino in Lemay has appealed its 2010 and 2011 assessments to the Missouri Tax Commission.

New county Assessor Jake Zimmerman found himself in the midst of a battle this fall with the county's Board of Equalization over his office's recommended assessments for Pinnacle and Harrah's in Maryland Heights. The board lowered both of the assessments from Zimmerman's recommendations.

County Council president Steve Stenger had called for an audit to determine how Zimmerman and his staff arrived at their initial assessments. But Stenger recently told the Beacon that the audit would be delayed until Pinnacle completes its appeal to the state -- a process that could take a year, according to the assessor's office.

The added aircraft should reap financial rewards for the county much more quickly.

The assessor's office began looking into "freeloader" aircraft soon after U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., disclosed with chagrin last March that her family had failed to pay personal property taxes for several years on its plane, which had been housed near Spirit of St. Louis airport.

The senator said the family had been unaware that St. Louis County assessed personal property taxes on private planes; soon after, a representative hand-delivered a check for more than $300,000 owed, including penalties and interest.

That payment, by the way, is included in the latest figures released by the assessor's office as to the amount owed by aircraft owners added to the county's rolls this year.

County Revenue Director Eugene Leung initially had caused a stir when, immediately in the wake of McCaskill's disclosure, he had told the Beacon that he had no idea how many other aircraft owners were failing to pay property taxes -- and added that he didn't have the staff to find out.

After Zimmerman took office in April, he announced that he would be hunting down such planes, saying "it's a matter of fairness."

His office's latest figures show that the 83 additional aircraft could bring in $1.367 million to the county this year -- a welcome infusion for the financially strapped county.

But a sizable chunk is for payment of back taxes, meaning that the annual added county revenue is likely to be just a fraction of the overall amount due this year.

Question of Fairness

The latest estimate of $1.367 million also is down about $300,000 from the earlier estimate in November because aircraft owners who previously had not paid personal property taxes produced documents to back up their claims that the assessor's office had miscalculated how long the aircraft had been hangared in the county.

In any case, Deputy Assessor Sara Howard credits honest aircraft owners and "detective work'' by county employees in uncovering the errant aircraft -- which are in addition to roughly 300 aircraft in compliance.

"The bottom line is, most plane owners are doing the right thing,'' Howard said. "It's a question of fairness."

Like all personal property, the planes must be declared by March 1. They are harder to track because, unlike autos, aircraft are not licensed in Missouri.

Zimmerman said that the planes and casinos are just some of the issues he's had to deal with since taking office.

"These last few months have been quite an education with a steep learning curve, but it's been very rewarding," he said. "The most pleasant surprise is how much people in St. Louis County care about what we do. People understand that fairness matters -- if someone gets an unfair tax break for a casino or an airplane or whatever, all the rest of us have to pay."

Zimmerman, by the way, has been circumspect about the audit episode with Stenger, a fellow Democrat. Zimmerman also stayed out of the budget disputes between Stenger and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, also a Democrat.

"As for all the political stuff, it kind of makes me shake my head," Zimmerman said. "There's a time and a place for that, I guess, but elections are a long way away. I've got more than enough on my plate worrying about customer service and fair assessments."

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