May 22, 2013

Waterville car rental business owner loses use tax appeal

By Betty Adams badams@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Eagle Rental of Waterville will have to pay use tax on four Cadillac Escalades driven by company owner Dan Bickford and his wife Jane, who is company vice president and treasurer.

The firm, through attorney William Hewitt, had asked the Maine Supreme Judicial Court to overturn a decision by a trial judge ordering that the use tax — similar to a sales tax — be paid on those vehicles.

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court rejected that appeal in a decision issued Tuesday.

In 2009, Bickford was assessed use tax on a 2004, 2005 and two 2007 Cadillac Escalades, an amount Hewitt said was less than $10,000.

"He fought this not over the amount of money or over tax that is due," Hewitt said. "It's about being told by the secretary of state you're doing everything you need to be doing, and having another branch (Maine Revenue Services) say you're not doing it right and we're going to tax you for it."

Hewitt said the Legislature clearly intended that these vehicles would not be taxed. Maine law permits a dealer to attach dealer plates to two vehicles for personal use, one by the dealer and one by a member of the dealer's immediate family.

"Maine Revenue really throws into disarray how these plates that are regulated by the secretary of state are to be taxed," Hewitt said. "If you are a dealer, you really can't know whether these vehicles are subject to use tax."

Assistant Attorney General Gregg Bernstein, who defended the Maine Revenue Services actions, disagreed. He said this case was unique in the sense that it involved an equipment rental dealer who also sold some equipment and occasionally sold an older model or high mileage vehicle.

He said that he differentiates Eagle Rental from other automobile dealers where the cars they are driving are very likely to be sold.

Associate Justice Andrew Mead agreed in the Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision.

"There is competent evidence in the record to support the court's determination that Eagle Rental withdrew the Escalades from its inventory, including that the company did not regularly sell passenger or luxury vehicles, the Bickfords had a pattern of trading in the vehicles for newer models every few years after devoting the Escalades primarily to personal use and after putting tens of thousands of miles on them, the Bickfords did not own passenger vehicles in their own names, the company did not sell the Escalades at retail, and these automobiles were only passively advertised for sale," Mead wrote.

He also wrote, "Between 2004 and 2011, Eagle Rental sold fewer than 10 passenger cars received in trade and averaged between three and five passenger cars in its inventory at any one time, including the disputed Cadillac Escalades."

Bickford had complained in January 2011 to the governor's office about the case, saying he was a victim of selective tax enforcement by Maine Revenue Services and that he had spent more than $30,000 at that point disputing the tax.

"There is no selective tax enforcement," Bernstein said. "This was an appropriately assessed case. It was tried and decided in superior court, which agreed with Maine Revenue Services, and the Maine supreme court agreed that the superior court case was properly decided."

Betty Adams — 621-5631
badams@centralmaine.com

 

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