Big boat gets a big bill: Tax charge of $395,826

The 156-foot mega-yacht Themis, worth an estimated $15.3 million, was until recently among the 100 largest yachts in America.

After months of persistent questions about the taxation of mega-yachts, the Charleston County auditor has sent a $395,826 bill to famed Lowcountry litigator Ronald Motley, owner of the 156-foot-long yacht Themis.

The Auditor's Office appraised the Themis at $15.3 million, resulting in a bill for one year of personal property tax that is larger than the combined bills for the least expensive 10,555 boats taxed in the county.

The Themis is the only watercraft valued at $1 million or more that was taxed by the county this year or last year.

Auditor Peggy Moseley said her office concluded that the Themis was in county waters for 180 days this year, which in January became the threshold for taxation. Previously, boats could be taxed if they were here for 60 consecutive days or 90 days total.

"We decided we didn't have anything to lose so we went ahead and billed him," Moseley said Tuesday, referring to Motley. "We'll see what he comes back with."

Motley, known for his role in winning the largest civil settlement in history -- the tobacco industry agreed to pay $246 billion to 46 states as a penalty for health costs related to smoking -- will have a chance to prove the Auditor's Office wrong.

The Themis usually is described as Motley's yacht, in articles about either the vessel or the lawyer. The craft is titled to a corporation in the Cayman Islands, and the bills go to ROMO Inc. in Mount Pleasant.

"If it's a good bill, we will pay it," said Douglas Kugley, president of ROMO. "Before paying, I will review the ship's log to make sure it was here for 180 days."

The Themis, named for the ancient Greek goddess of justice, was listed by Power & Motoryacht magazine as one of America's 100 largest yachts until 2007, when it was bumped off the list.

The aluminum-hulled craft with teak decking was built in 1998 by Trinity Yachts. With an 18,750-gallon fuel capacity, the Themis has a cruising range of 6,800 nautical miles, and a top speed of 24 knots, according to a description on Trinity Yachts' Web site.

The Themis was designed for a crew of nine and has a master stateroom and four guest cabins. Amenities include a six-person hot tub.

The nearly $400,000 tax bill for the Themis would be a windfall for the county, the city and local schools, but it's common for the bills of some of the most expensive boats on the tax list to be voided after their owners provide evidence that they were not in county waters long enough to be taxed, or for some other type of error.

Last year, four of the largest 10 bills were voided.

Local resident David Coe had specifically mentioned the Themis at recent County Council meetings, where he alleged that mega-yachts were escaping taxation; Moseley said it always was a matter of waiting and watching to see if that yacht and others were here long enough to be taxed.

Coe has not been alone in expressing concern. County officials and County Council members, aware of the budget problems facing local government, also had asked if Moseley's office was on top of the situation.

Moseley responded by addressing County Council at a recent meeting, where she said her office had investigated all the boats that Coe alleged had escaped taxation.

"Most of those boats were already on the rolls," she said Tuesday. "We're always doing everything we can."

She said the few boats named by Coe that weren't already being taxed were either under investigation or had not stayed in county waters long enough to be taxed. Moseley said hers is the only Auditor's Office she knows of that regularly sends investigators out in a boat to search county waters for untaxed craft.

Most of the more than 20,000 boats on the county's tax list are registered with the state, stored locally year-round, and are billed based upon a list the state provides to counties. It is the large, transient boats that are not used in interstate commerce that are the focus of the 180-day rule.

"This has been a very concerning issue, and I do think we are making progress," Councilman Paul Thurmond said at the council meeting Nov. 3.

County Administrator Allen O'Neal said he was comfortable with the steps Moseley has taken. The county's legal team also helped prepare a letter that the Auditor's Office can send to boat owners, demanding information on a boat's whereabouts during the year.