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St. Louis County initiates new effort to find untaxed planes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 18, 2011 - St. Louis County officials say they're stepping up efforts to find additional unregistered private planes that may be based in the county and haven't been assessed for personal property taxes, as required by law. So far, they haven't found any.

The move comes as a result of questions posed by the Beacon after U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., acknowledged Monday that no personal property taxes had been paid for four years on a plane co-owned by her family and kept at the county-owned Spirit of St. Louis Airport.

McCaskill said the family had been unaware that such taxes were required; Checks for close to $290,000 in back taxes were given to the county on Monday, with additonal payments expected to cover interest and penalties.

Mac Scott, communications director for County Executive Charlie Dooley, said today that Dooley has ordered the county assessor's office to renew inquiries to find out if there are more errant owners housing aircraft at Spirit or elsewhere in the county.

"We've been contacting the hangar owners by phone,'' said Scott, referring to several hundred private hangars ringing Spirit airport.

The county also sent out a letter Wednesday to all county residents believed to own planes, and who did not respond to an initial letter sent out in early January. Both letters asked for information about aircraft and underscored that they need to be registered with the county, and to be assessed for property taxes.

Dooley, said Scott, "is serious about this."

Dooley's actions came in response to an earlier story this week by the Beacon, in which county Director of Revenue Eugene Leung said that his office had no idea how many errant planes might be housed at Spirit or elsewhere in the county. Leung also said that his office lacked the staff to conduct a thorough investigation.

Dooley said in a subsequent interview that he wanted to make sure all county residents paid their fair share of taxes. In the case of planes, he had added, "If it's something we need to investigate, we'll look into it."

Scott said that Leung and his staff have been cooperative about the new push. The spokesman added that various efforts have routinely been conducted to find out about county-based planes, and whether the taxes have been paid.

For example, Scott said that Leung's staff routinely has "checked the FAA list (of federally registered planes in the region) against the county's tax rolls."

The FAA list shows that there are 981 area plane owners, said Scott, but that includes some who reside in the city of St. Louis. And just because an owner lives in the region, he added, doesn't mean they permanently store their plane locally.

Scott also emphasized, as he and county officials said earlier this week, that there is only so much that the county can do to track down private planes housed in the county and find out if they are properly registered and the taxes paid.

The county has no jurisdiction to enter privately owned hangars to discern if aircraft are stored there. Some no longer house planes and are used as storage facilities or as business sites, Scott said. And some planes may be only briefly in a hangar, and actually be primarily stored somewhere else.

The county faces even more challenges when it comes to privately owned Creve Coeur Airport in Maryland Heights. County officials have less knowledge about planes kept at that airport. A person answering the private airport's phone on Friday said there are about 100 hangars on the property and that airport owners have no knowledge of who has registered their aircraft with the county and which owners have paid taxes.

In any case, Scott said the renewed county effort has yet to find any untaxed planes -- but that could change in the coming weeks as it continues its inquiries.

Despite all that work, St. Louis County government would not be the primary beneficiary of any additional personal property taxes collected on planes. The bulk of property taxes collected in the county go to the school district in the area where the plane is housed.

Since Spirit of St. Louis Airport is in the Rockwood School District, that means Rockwood stands to gain the most financially if errant planes are found and more taxes paid. For example, the district is slated to receive close $180,000 of the back taxes paid by McCaskill's family on their private plane.

Amid this week's controversy over planes, Rockwood has been on spring break. The district recently announced it likely would be laying off staff because of budget problems. A Rockwood spokeswoman reached today said district officials will examine the matter -- and the unexpected influx of cash -- when they return to work next week.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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