Saturday, May 11, 2013

Augusta air ambulance company will drop tax dispute

Officials for an Augusta air ambulance company say they will no longer dispute a $98,000 bill for property taxes, which was paid last month by the company’s new owners.

Bo Pounds, who sold his interest in AirMed in October to the Texas-based company Med-Trans, said Friday that after speaking with Richmond County Chief Appraiser Alveno Ross he was ready to drop the issue.

“They explained it to me, it was paid, it comes out of our money and I’m satisfied,” Pounds said.

Pounds said that the more than $98,000 in business property taxes will be deducted from $400,000 that he and his partner are still owed by Med-Trans. The overdue tax debt was paid by Med-Trans last month after Richmond County Tax Commissioner Steven Kendrick seized one of the company planes at Augusta Regional Airport.

Med-Trans officials had said they paid the debt under protest and were prepared to pursue a refund, but Pounds said that was no longer necessary.

“Actually, I paid for it because I have a $400,000 hold-back on the contract with Med-Trans,” he said, adding that half of the money belonged to former AirMed President Dan Gates.

Pounds said he and Gates will split the bill because he owned two of the four AirMed aircraft that were assessed and taxed as business personal property.

“The helicopters were mine; Dan had the planes,” he said.

The Richmond County tax bill, however, is not the only tax issue.

Tax officials for McDuffie and Columbia counties said AirMed had not paid taxes on aircraft in previous years. Gates said he didn’t think he owed any when the taxes were assessed based on his interpretation of state law.

AirMed still owes a partial bill on Columbia County from 2011. According to Superior Court documents, AirMed has appealed an assessment of $10,422 on a helicopter it kept at its Wheeler Road headquarters.

To pursue the appeal in court, AirMed had to pay 85 percent of the amount owed, which it did, according to Tax Commissioner Kay Allen.

AirMed’s argument in Columbia County is much the same as the one in the Richmond County case – that it was exempt from local taxes because it was licensed as a commercial airline by the Federal Aviation Administration.

That argument doesn’t fly with the state Department of Revenue.

Charles Nazerian, the public utility program manager for the department, said that even if AirMed qualified as a commercial airline under state regulations, it would not be exempt from local taxes.

He said commercial airlines are generally those that have regularly scheduled flights, not air ambulance services.

“We are talking about the kind of airline where you can walk up to a counter and buy a ticket,” he said.

Even those companies pay local taxes, he said. The difference is that the Department of Revenue assesses the aircraft and apportions the value to the counties where it flies.

His office supplied a list of 37 such companies in Georgia that qualify as airlines for tax purposes. AirMed wasn’t on the list.

Nazerian said commercial companies have to file business property tax returns for aircraft in the counties they are based and pay taxes on those planes.

That’s what other licensed air ambulance companies operating in Georgia do. Spot checks with other tax assessors around the state found that other companies – Air Evac LifeTeam, Air Methods and Med-Trans – were in compliance with local tax laws.

Gates said Friday he understands now he was wrong about being exempt from local taxes.

“That was based on what the lawyers told us,” he said.

Wanda Sisson, the business property appraiser for the McDuffie County Tax Assessor’s Office, said she had different problems assessing AirMed’s aircraft when they were hangared in Thomson.

Sisson said company officials contended they didn’t have to pay taxes on their planes in Georgia because they were registered as a Delaware corporation.

“We did an inspection a couple of years ago at the airport and their plane was there,” she said. “Actually, the address they gave me did not exist. We tried and tried to get them to pay and the next thing we knew they were gone.”

Gates and Pounds said they were given bad advice by their attorneys on the tax issue, which is why they had not filed returns in the counties where the planes were hangared.

Pounds said that after learning more about the issues Friday, he and Gates intended to drop the appeal in Columbia County and pay what was owed.

“I told (Gates) he needed to withdraw from that Columbia County thing and just forget about it,” Pounds said.

Gates said the company fired him last week from his position at AirMed after the tax situation came to light.

Reid Vogel, a spokesman for Med-Trans, said the company was not aware of local tax issues when it purchased AirMed last year.

“This is all news to us and is very unsettling,” Vogel said.


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