Gregory F.X. Daly, St. Louis collector of revenue, and his deputy, Tom Vollmer, are among the more popular people at cocktail parties — a fact they concede with more surprise than hubris. "The first thing I hate telling people is that I'm the tax collector, because everybody hates the tax man," says Vollmer. "But people have so many questions. They really do want to know a lot about our business."
Ah, the Tax Man. He's on everybody's minds come spring, and no less this year as gas prices spike, piggybanks empty and visions of stimulus checks dance in our heads.
After inquiring into the significance of "F.X." (for "Francis Xavier"), most people want to be told exactly where their tax money goes after it reaches the collector's account. Inside the city limits, public schools, city operations and libraries top the list, garnering 57.8 percent, 20.74 percent and 7.35 percent, respectively. In the county, the most funds go to school districts (54.42 percent), community colleges and special school districts (15.38 percent) and fire districts (9.05 percent).
Here's a question most people don't tend to ask: Who ain't payin'?
The query arose at Riverfront Times early this spring when we received a tip that a certain public official had been sanctioned for failing to pay several years' worth of real estate taxes. Public-records laws that govern personnel matters prevented us from verifying whether the alleged deadbeat had been disciplined.
On the other hand, those same laws permit us to open the whole book. Info on earnings taxes is off-limits, but personal property and real estate tax rolls are entirely available to the public.
In order to be as up-to-date as possible, we requested lists of accounts delinquent as of the end of the year's first quarter. (That wasn't possible for data on personal property taxes in St. Louis County, which is accurate as of February 25.)
The four separate spreadsheets we combed over contain a total of 228,916 delinquent accounts.
That's the bad news.
The good news: In both the city and county, more than 90 percent of taxpayers adhere to their part of the social contract, settling up before the December 31 due date.
"But we're not happy at 92 percent," asserts Tom Vollmer. "We're happy at 100 percent. Because let's face it: If you and I are paying, everybody else should, too."
Of course, not everyone who fails to pay does so intentionally, cautions Daly. "For as many taxpayers who're trying to dodge it, there are just as many for whom it slipped their mind, or they thought their wife was doing it," Daly says. Undoubtedly some people aren't even aware their account with the tax collector is overdue.
It's hard to quantify the toll tax delinquents take on the public coffers. Daly and Vollmer believe their office eventually collects every penny it's owed and recoups all the resources expended in going after the deadbeats.
But Tim Lee, assistant collector for St. Louis County, disagrees.
"If I added up the time, the labor, the manpower, the postage, the county counselor's and the sheriff's involvement in the 1,000 lawsuits we file every year, does my office come out ahead?" Lee asks. "Absolutely not. I lose money on it. Everybody loses money when somebody doesn't pay on time."
So, you ask, who ain't payin'?
Well, for starters, the public official who inspired the initial tip is indeed a deadbeat. But that person has company, including several state legislators. More broadly, the roster includes real estate developers, silk-stocking lawyers, professional athletes and one very prominent pro sports team.
Note: For the purposes of this story, if the city and/or county didn't have your accounts classified as current at the time they produced the spreadsheets we requested, you're — well, you're a deadbeat.
Before we commence with specifics, another caveat or two: Owing to time constraints, space restrictions and all-around brain crampage, we couldn't possibly trace all 228,916 delinquent accounts. So we cherry-picked, highlighting the people and businesses who owed the most, as well as those with names that ring a bell.
Parentheses and footnotes indicate information that we've added. For accounts listed in the name of a company, we tracked down the top dog via the company's registration with the Missouri Secretary of State. For accounts listed in the name of individuals, we consulted other data sources and/or telephoned them directly in order to fill in the blanks.By far the easiest way to view the information is to download it in pdf form: Click on the links below to see our cherry-picked lists of prominent deadbeat taxpayers. Some of the names might surprise you!
Keep in mind that the records present a snapshot of city and county accounts at the time the data was generated, and that Riverfront Times is not in any way vouching for the clarity or accuracy of governmental record-keeping.
If you care to troll the government-provided data yourself, the contents of the spreadsheets are available here as .zip files:
City Real Estate Tax Deadbeats,
City Personal Property Tax Deadbeats,
County Personal Property Tax Deadbeats and
County Real Estate Tax Deadbeats.
Real Estate Tax Deadbeats
Last year the City of St. Louis sent out real estate tax bills totaling $216,229,879.81. As of April 3, $21,745,435.36 remained outstanding, on 18,835 accounts.
In a technical sense, delinquency can be no big deal. The city tacks on monthly interest of 1 percent (not to exceed 8.25 percent for 2007), plus a 2 percent penalty on total taxes and interest upon payment. After three years of delinquency, the city files suit against the property owner in St. Louis Circuit Court. If no settlement is made during the fourth year, the city sells the property at auction from the courthouse steps, as allowed by state law.
City officials say the generous time frame has made for an interesting "tradition," dating back as far as the 1930s or '40s, in which some property owners will consistently maintain two years of delinquency. Come year three, they pay the earliest year of back taxes in order to avoid a lawsuit.
Daly is taking strides toward getting even tougher with the deadbeats. Since his tenure began a year ago, he has established a new compliance unit, headed by two retired police officers who literally pound the pavement in search of the worst offenders.
"I think it makes a big impression when somebody knocks on your door and says, 'You didn't pay this,'" he says. "The community talks amongst itself. You hear one guy say that the collector was out here the other day about taxes, and you have another guy who says, 'Christ, I better pay this,' or, 'I better look again at that letter I got a while back.'"View Ten of the Biggest Real Estate Tax Delinquents in St. Louis City.
The delinquency clock ticks faster in St. Louis County, where properties are put on the auction block after three years. "We have people that literally call us the day of the sale and say, 'Have you come to my property yet?'" says assistant collector Tim Lee. "And then they'll come running in with a check."
The county tacks on interest at the rate of 2 percent per month (not to exceed 18 percent for 2007), plus a penalty of 2 percent on total taxes and interest upon payment.
Lee's team isn't shy about reminding corporate taxpayers — many of whom must fork over millions of dollars a year — that they've missed the deadline. "If Daimler Chrysler, say, or Boeing, is delinquent, we contact them immediately, because it's a large amount of money and could have a really big impact on our customers," Lee explains. But in a fit of discretion, he declines to specify who the calls went out to this January.
In 2007, St. Louis County issued real estate tax bills totaling $1,439,786,972.65.
On February 18, 2008, the first date for which a delinquency roll was available, local luminaries still in debt to the county included former St. Louis Blues player Doug Weight, $17,602.01 for 11215 Mosley Hill Drive; former St. Louis Ram Marshall Faulk, $8,293.04 for 6340 Clayton Road, and philanthropists Desmond and Mary Ann Lee, $9,355.18, for 9010 Sedgwick Place Drive. State Rep. Jim Avery Jr. also owed $1,430.38 for his Crestwood home at 9714 Big Bend Blvd.
As of April 1, the county was still waiting on $51,101,059.15 from 21,954 accounts.
By then Weight, Faulk and the Lees had paid up, as had Rep. Avery.
Click here to see more lists of real estate tax deadbeats.
Not All Deadbeats Are Created Equal
As we've noted, for the purposes of this story if the city and/or county didn't have your accounts marked as current at the time they produced the spreadsheets we requested, you're a deadbeat.
All the same, St. Louis area tax collectors are quick to point out there are myriad reasons people fail to pay. One, of course, is willful neglect. But as city collector Gregory F.X. Daly cautions, "For as many taxpayers who're trying to dodge it, there are just as many for whom it slipped their mind, or they thought their wife was doing it."
Other causes include: rough times, estate complications and miscommunications with mortgage or leasing companies, some of which can result in unwitting deliquency.
Stephen C. Murphy, a real estate lawyer who owns a considerable amount of property in the city and the county, is one of the larger debtors in both jurisdictions, with a tardy tab in excess of $480,000. It's a matter, he says, of priorities. "In a couple cases the properties are being refinanced. In some other cases we had big capital expenditures that we took care of first, and now we're doing the taxes," Murphy says, noting that the parcels amount to a small percentage of his total portfolio.
"We try to owe more than that," quips Pete Rothschild when told that the city has him down for more than $87,000. "Sometimes it's a cheap loan, depending on what the interest rates are."
Kidding aside, Rothschild says our call was the first he heard of any delinquencies. After a bit of research he called back with explanations: miscommunications with an escrowing company; oversights on bills for vacant lots; willful neglect in anticipation of pending sales. And, curiously, the city still has him down for four properties he says he sold last year — to the city. "But for most of these, the buck stops with me," Rothschild sums up. "There's no excuse except I'm an idiot."
Some folks squared everything away right after we made our records request, such as St. Louis County Circuit Court judge Terry Wiese. "Unfortunately we were waiting for our federal tax return [back] and that's been received," the judge explains, "and the bills have been taken care of, about a month ago."
Some just happen to be settling up the very week our calls go out, as is the case for Monsanto chairman Hugh Grant. "Bottom line: It was simply an oversight on their part," Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles says on behalf of his boss. "Ironically, just yesterday the payment was made."
Others cry foul.
Ron Poe, owner of MegaSun, a tanning-bed manufacturer, gripes that his bill went up 400 percent — from roughly $3,000 to $12,000 — for a warehouse in the Locust Business District. "I can tell you I wasn't hurrying down there to pay that," Poe says.
"And I just don't know what to do," he goes on. "They're giving huge tax abatements to all these loft developers and making up for the difference by taxing smaller businesses harder. It's over-taxing. I know I've got three years, but I think I'm going to sell. We're probably going to get out of St. Louis."
2007 was a reassessment year in the city, which has accounted for more protested bills than usual, according to Tom Vollmer. Such is the case with the Carpenters' District Council, for instance, which owes $74,235.59 for last year. Terry Nelson, executive secretary of the union, offers an unabashed explanation: "We're not ashamed of our name being in the paper, because we don't think they raised our bill legitimately. It went up what I would call an exorbitant amount, a lot more than it ever did before. That's why we're appealing."
There's also the potential for fuzzy math in governmental record-keeping. Bob Kraiberg, City of St. Louis excise commissioner, sounded horrified when we called to ask him why he was more than $10,000 in arrears for three properties in which he shares ownership with fellow developer Pete Rothschild. Further digging reveals that Kraiberg Properties LLC actually had settled up with the city before the December 31 deadline, but under protest. It turns out the tax collector's office does not remove from the delinquency rolls the names of those who have paid under protest (and nor have we) until the matter is settled — though as Kraiberg's accountant points out, "they have the money sitting there in escrow."
A Brief Tax-Rate Primer
In Missouri, real estate tax is computed by multiplying a property's assessed value by the tax rate imposed by the municipality in which it is located. To arrive at an assessed value, properties are appraised, then multiplied by a percentage of the appraised value as follows: 32 percent for commercial property, 12 percent for farm property and 19 percent for residential property. The tax rate in the City of St. Louis is 6.5 percent. In St. Louis County, tax rates vary by municipality; the average rate is 7.8 percent.
The same tax rates are applied to personal property. Individual property, such as cars, boats, trailers and motorcycles, are assigned average appraisal values using the Kelley Blue Book, then assessed at 33.3 percent. In the case of business equipment, the depreciated value of fixtures is calculated according to Internal Revenue Service guidelines, then assessed at 33.3 percent.
Personal Property Tax Deadbeats
Both city and county fare slightly worse when it comes to collecting personal property taxes, the annual fees applied to business equipment, and to anything with a motor or wheels owned by individuals.
In the city, 2.2 percent stands uncollected from 2004; the county has yet to collect 1.82 percent of its total charge for that same year.
The officials typically seek payment for up to six years for individuals, eleven for businesses. Marriages and moves sometimes complicate the sleuthing. Says Tim Lee: "If we can find you, we go after you."
License plates cannot be renewed without proof of payment — which explains why numerous accounts go unsettled for two-year periods in both city and county. Both jurisdictions thus come down hardest on individuals after the second year of delinquency. The collectors file suit in circuit court; if the delinquent still fails to settle, the judge orders a default judgment and the deadbeat will face subsequent problems with his credit.
But, cautions Lee: "There is no rule that says we can't go after them sooner. State statute says that for somebody who hasn't paid up, we can send a request that their [vehicle] registration be suspended. It's a good tool to have."
Businesses get bird-dogged more. The city files suit after five months, the county waits six. "We have to be more proactive with companies because they can go into debt quickly and dissolve, and we'll never find them again," Lee explains. "Besides, those who aren't paying are not truly playing on an equal field with their competitors. Their business is still getting services that other people's taxes are paying for."
Bars and restaurants, members of the media and politicos are prevalent on the city's delinquency roster as of April 4. Topping the list — and way, way ahead of the pack: our very own Redbirds!View Ten of the Biggest Personal Property Tax Delinquents in St. Louis City.
In the county, bars and restaurants also feature prominently on the delinquency roll, as does the healthcare industry, with numerous medical practices and spas making the list. The Cardinals' nemesis, Centene, also makes the Top 10. Arbitrarily left out of our sampling are scads of limo companies, fast-food joints and retail shops in suburban malls.
View the Ten of the Biggest Personal Property Tax Delinquents in St. Louis County.
Click here to see more lists of property tax deadbeats.
If your name is among those highlighted here and you believe the Tax Man is mistaken, feel free to let us know via the comments thread that accompanies this story or by e-mailing the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sufficiently compelling explanations will be tacked on as footnotes.