CARSON CITY — Gov. Jim Gibbons intends to bill the widow of missing multimillionaire adventurer Steve Fossett for the $687,000 state cost of conducting a search for his remains in the fall, a spokesman said Wednesday.
Gibbons press secretary Ben Kieckhefer said it was his understanding that the governor will bill Peggy Fossett for costs of the unsuccessful search, although details on how she will be billed have not been completed.
Billing someone for the costs of a search is unusual.
On Tuesday, before Kieckhefer revealed the governor’s plans, state Emergency Management Director Frank Siracusa said state and local government search and rescue workers have a long-standing tradition of not charging when they hunt for missing persons, even for multimillionaires such as Steve Fossett.
“We do not charge the rich or the poor,” Siracusa said. “There is no precedent where government will go after people for costs just because they have money to pay for it. You get lost, and we look for you. It is a service your taxpayer dollars pay for.”
But Siracusa added that the final decision on whether Peggy Fossett would be billed rested with the governor.
Gibbons could have faced a lot of political flak if he did not bill the widow because he has been forced to cut state spending by $914 million in a deepening economic downturn.
The Nevada economy is not expected to return to normal growth patterns for three to five years.
State Budget Director Andrew Clinger has asked state agencies to look to cut their spending by another $400 million a year when the 2009 Legislature meets in February.
The state incurred a $687,000 expense, mainly Nevada National Guard helicopter costs, looking for Fossett.
Fossett flew away on Sept. 3 from Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch, south of Yerington, in a small plane on what was supposed to be a short pleasure flight.
Hilton, the hotel magnate, later voluntarily sent the state a check $200,000 to cover some of the search costs.
A monthlong search by ground searchers, the National Guard and the Civil Air Patrol turned up no signs of Fossett or his plane.
Planes and helicopters flew repeatedly over a 20,000-square-mile area.
Fossett was declared legally dead Feb. 15 by an Illinois judge. In making that determination, Cook County Circuit Court Judge Jeffery Malak said Fossett left a “vast,” eight-figure estate, meaning more than $10 million.
Siracusa announced at an April 10 Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee hearing that he had hired an independent auditor to review costs incurred by the state in searching for Fossett.
Assembly Ways and Means Chairman Morse Arberry, D-Las Vegas, then asked Siracusa why the state did not bill the Fossett family for its search costs because Nevada has no money to spare.
Siracusa did not answer Arberry’s question, but he said Tuesday any decision to bill Fossett’s widow would be made by Gibbons.
In an interview, he said state and local rescue workers simply never would bill anyone for searches unless the person deliberately faked his disappearance.
“If Joe Public was lost, we would have sent out searchers,” he said. “We would do the same thing for anybody. If you have a fire, we fight the fire. We don’t charge.”
Siracusa acknowledged some citizens have a hard time believing searchers would spend as much time or expense looking for a little-known person as for Fossett.
But he said that searchers do not charge when skiers run off course at Lake Tahoe resorts or when hikers are lost in the mountains west of Las Vegas.
In Fossett’s case, the Lyon County Sheriff’s Department checked Fossett’s credit cards and bank records and found no evidence he had faked his disappearance.
Siracusa said he might have given the Interim Finance Committee the false impression that by hiring an auditor, he was challenging the $687,000 in charges incurred by the National Guard in the Fossett search.
He said he hopes the audit would show some of the Fossett search expenses can be classified as National Guard “training expenses” and billed to the federal government.
“We are doing an audit but not because we are critical of anybody or suspect something was done wrong,” Siracusa said.
The Guard billed the state several thousands of dollars per hour for helicopter searches, with per diem and other expenses.
Contact Review-Journal Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.