- by JEREMY KOHLER > 314-340-8337 Nov 20, 2011
It turns out Sen. Claire McCaskill wasn’t the only person who wasn’t paying taxes on an airplane in St. Louis County.
County Assessor Jake Zimmerman says his staff discovered 79 aircraft that should have been — but weren’t — on county tax rolls. They added $1.6 million to the county’s personal property tax billings this year, including $300,000 paid by McCaskill and her husband.
McCaskill disclosed her tax problem to reporters in March after the online news site Politico raised questions about her use of the plane. She hinted that because the county relied on owners to report their own property, there could be others who owed taxes, too.
The Post-Dispatch later analyzed data on federal aircraft registrations, and takeoffs and landings, and compared them with tax accounts. It found several planes that seemed to be based in St. Louis County but weren’t on tax rolls.
When asked about the Post-Dispatch findings, Zimmerman said he planned to investigate ‘substantial noncompliance” with tax obligations by aircraft owners.
In an interview with the Post-Dispatch last week, Zimmerman said his inquiry was far from over and that his findings could be “the tip of the iceberg.”
He said several plane owners reported themselves and declared their property after the Post-Dispatch story. His staff also found taxable aircraft by pressuring private hangars at the county-owned Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield to comply with state law and provide contact information for their tenants.
He said a staff member also analyzed data on takeoffs and landings, and scoured websites, to identify planes flying under the tax radar.
Zimmerman said a few businesses at Spirit continue to refuse to respond to his office’s request for information about planes.
“This is a detective story that is going to be going on for months,” Zimmerman said.
It’s a matter of fairness for people who are paying their taxes.
“What do taxing districts do when revenue is down? They raise taxes,” he said.
The owners of two planes featured in a Post-Dispatch story in May now owe the county nearly $300,000 in unpaid taxes, penalties and interest dating to 2008, Zimmerman said.
One is owned by a Utah company set up by Dr. John Short, former president and chief executive of RehabCare Group, a national health care provider based in Clayton that was sold to Kindred Hospital this year.
The newspaper’s review of takeoffs and landings showed the plane flying almost exclusively into and out of Spirit earlier this year.
Short told a reporter that his Utah company had leased the plane to RehabCare since 2006. He insisted the plane was officially based in Utah.
But Zimmerman said the investigation found the plane wasn’t registered in Utah. He sent Short’s company a bill for $106,000.
Short could not be reached last week for comment.
Another plane at Spirit was a 1982 LearJet 55 owned by APLUX LLC of St. Louis, a company set up by Donn Lux, president of the St. Louis-based liquor producer and marketing company Luxco.
A representative of Aero Charter, a business at Spirit that manages and stores the plane for APLUX, told a Post-Dispatch reporter the plane has been hangared at Spirit for about four years.
Lux, interviewed in the spring, said he didn’t know if he owed taxes on the plane. This fall, Zimmerman sent APLUX a bill for $184,000 for taxes, interest and penalties dating to 2008.
Lux did not return messages seeking comment.
One helicopter owner griped about the county’s aggressive tax collection.
“Personal property tax is a very unfair tax to begin with on businesses, and the reason is you have to pay it even if you’re not profitable,” said Charlie Duchek, chief pilot at Midwest Helicopter, based at Spirit.
Zimmerman’s office is investigating how much Midwest owes in taxes on a Schweizer helicopter that the company never declared, although Duchek said the amount will be offset by taxes he had erroneously paid on a helicopter he no longer owned.
Duchek said Zimmerman’s staffers have been like “pit bulls” this year. He said they valued his property too high by using a blue-book value instead of a market value that he believed was lower.
The response from Zimmerman’s office: That’s how the law says we are supposed to do it.
BILL IN DISPUTE
The largest tax billed for a single plane is $619,148, including $80,000 for interest and penalties, but that bill is in dispute.
The bill is for a $9.3 million Dassault Falcon 900 jet kept at TAC Air, a privately owned hangar at Spirit.
The plane’s landlord is part of the reason the county didn’t know about the plane. TAC Air resisted the county’s efforts to gain access to the hangar or to gather information about its tenants.
The general manager, Phil Bissonnette, told the Post-Dispatch earlier this year that he wasn’t bound by the law requiring hangar owners to report their tenants because TAC Air didn’t own its buildings and land, it leased them.
Last week, Zimmerman said Bissonnette provided a list of TAC Air’s tenants after the St. Louis County Counselor’s office sent him a letter.
The TAC Air list turned up a Learjet owned by a 551ST, a limited liability company in Overland Park, Kan., that has been billed $183,000 for 2010 and 2011 taxes and could also owe taxes for 2009, Zimmerman said. Representatives of the company could not be reached.
The list also revealed the Falcon 900. Federal Aviation Administration records say the owner is 2 Ts, a limited-liability company in O’Fallon, Mo., which bought the plane in November 2009.
The principal owners of 2 Ts are not listed on public records, but the company shares an address with True Manufacturing, which makes commercial-sized refrigerators.
A lawyer for 2 Ts declined to identify his clients and said there was not an exact overlap with True’s owners.
“I can assure you that 2 Ts pay their bills,” said the lawyer, Michael Newmark.
Newmark disputes that any taxes are owed for 2010 because when the company bought the plane in November 2009 it was being serviced at a mechanic in Nebraska and wasn’t brought to St. Louis County until February 2010.
Based on the TAC Air documents, Zimmerman said he believed the plane had been based at TAC Air before the 2 Ts’ purchase in 2009. Bissonnette said Friday that wasn’t the case.
Individual taxpayers who have personal property in Missouri must declare it in the county where they live — not where they keep it. Corporate owners, though, must pay personal property taxes to the county where their plane is based on Jan 1. The law considers the plane “based” in a county if that’s where it’s most frequently hangared or serviced.
Newmark said that in 2011, his clients declared their property in St. Charles County, where the company is based.
St. Charles County Assessor Scott Shipman confirmed that 2 Ts at one time sent a form declaring the plane as property based at Spirit. No bill was issued because the jet wasn’t subject to taxes in his county, he said.
2 Ts never got a bill from St. Louis County because officials there didn’t know to send one.
“People don’t pay bills before they get them,” said Newmark, the lawyer.
Said Zimmerman: “If you are a law-abiding citizen who is trying to do the right thing, you are going to find a way to pay your taxes.”