Treasurer says she's taking action to collect delinquent aircraft taxes

Beaufort County Treasurer Joy Logan says her office has started action to collect delinquent aircraft property taxes owed since 2005 after county officials pointed out the office's low collection rate earlier this month.

County officials say it's possible more than $1 million is owed in delinquent aircraft taxes. The average collection rate for the taxes has been about 33 percent during the past five years.

In e-mail responses Friday with county officials, Logan wrote: "We are putting liens on eight (aircraft) today."

As of Tuesday, the liens had not been recorded at the Beaufort County Courthouse. When asked Tuesday about the liens, Logan said, they are "in the process of being filed."

A lien is a claim on a property as security for payment of debt. If the debt is not paid, the county can auction the property to try to recoup its losses.Logan has said the collection rate for aircraft was low because it's difficult to file liens on delinquent aircraft.

"We cannot put these properties on the tax sale as we can other properties," Logan said in an e-mail to county officials. "They first have to be seized by the aeronautics board or the U.S. Coast Guard. They put them up for auction after we prepare all the paperwork and hire (an) FAA attorney or maritime attorney.

"Then they have to be seized by the proper authorities, insured by the county and placed in a safe environment at the county's expense."The FAA, however, says it needs only the amount of the claim, a description of the aircraft and a $5 fee.

"The FAA does not get involved and has no role in assisting local jurisdictions in collecting airplane taxes" beyond noting in its records if a county places a lien on a plane, FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said.

An official with Charleston County's Delinquent Tax Office, which has a 94.6-percent collection rate on aircraft taxes, said it collects the taxes on its own.

Asked Tuesday to clarify the delinquent aircraft-tax collection process again, Logan said it was "too complicated to explain" and that she had "no comment."

Beaufort County Council member Steve Baer said the county Finance Committee, which raised concerns about the collections, wants to know why liens weren't filed sooner and why the collection rate is so low.

"We could be much more aggressive at (collection) than we are," he said.

County attorney Lad Howell is drafting a formal explanation of the process for the Finance Committee meeting scheduled for Monday. Committee members plan to discuss whether the outstanding tax bills are for planes that are no longer in the county and should be taken off its registers, and how much money the county is losing each year from uncollected aircraft property tax revenues.

"We don't know what the reason is at this point," said Finance Committee chairman Stu Rodman. "Some of it may have been people who moved, or it may be because of record-keeping. Other taxes may be truly delinquent."

The Treasurer's Office is in charge of collecting taxes on the 87 aircraft registered in the county. Of those, owners of 24 have not paid taxes this year, according to records provided by the office.

One owner of a helicopter was listed as owing $650,000, but Logan said in the e-mail Friday that the aircraft had been removed from the list because the owner and the craft are no longer in the county.

The aircraft collection rate for Logan's office was about 90 percent between 2000 and 2004, Rodman said.

Last fiscal year, the county collected 42 percent of the money owed on private aircraft, said county finance director David Starkey. The rate was just 25 percent in 2008.