The taxman cometh

Published 8:47 pm Tuesday, April 6, 2010

If you haven’t paid your personal property taxes, you might want to keep your car in the garage.

City Treasurer Ron Williams is hoping to use technology to buckle down on the most delinquent car tax accounts.

Williams is investigating a program that would involve the use of vehicle-mounted cameras connected to license-plate reader software. Driving through parking lots or on the street, the cameras could spot license plates, read them and compare them with a list of plates belonging to deadbeat taxpayers. When a vehicle with unpaid taxes is found, the vehicle would be towed and impounded until the taxes are paid.

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“I’m interested in doing it,” Williams said of the program last week. “I just want to do a little more legal work before we implement it.”

Similar programs have been cost-effective in other Virginia cities, Williams said, but cost is another factor he is looking into. He also said a contract could be worked out with a third-party vendor to administer the program, to reduce the cost of the program for the city.

Many tax collectors in other localities simply put a boot on the vehicles, but Williams said his program would most likely involve towing the cars.

“Once you’ve identified that vehicle has delinquent taxes owed on it, the most effective way to seize the vehicle is to have it towed by a wrecker,” Williams said. “Our only intent is to collect the taxes. At that point, once the taxes are paid, the vehicle would be released immediately.”

Vehicles whose owners still don’t pay up would get sold at auction.

Most years, between 1 and 2 percent of cars in Suffolk have personal property taxes more than a year in arrears. Williams said he would not tow cars for back taxes less than a year to a year and a half old.

“As long as the taxpayer’s acting in good faith and trying to pay the taxes, we’re going to work with them,” Williams said. “The ones we have to take action on are the ones who don’t respond to any of our communications.”

Personal property tax collections are important for the city, Williams said. Bond rating agencies look at the city’s rate of tax collection, and vehicle taxes are particularly hard to collect from deadbeats.

“We have to be more aggressive with personal property,” Williams said. “Vehicles get repossessed. They get sold. If the account is not paid, the city could lose that revenue. We try to collect as quickly as possible as much as we can.”

By the time taxes have gone unpaid for a year, Williams said, debtors should have had plenty of opportunity to pay up and plenty of warnings they are behind. His office notifies registered owners by phone and by mail, letting them know of the legal options the treasurer can exercise — wage liens, bank account liens, court judgments, garnishments of income tax refunds or lottery winnings and blocks on license or registration renewals. Court judgments are particularly effective, he said, because they are recorded by the credit reporting agencies, which in turn affect people’s ability to borrow money.

“We take these actions, but we do it very, very judiciously, on a case-by-case basis,” Williams said. “This is another tool we can use to collect the revenue.”

William encouraged anyone who is behind on debts to the city to contact his office and set up a payment plan.

“We’re going to be fair and compassionate,” Williams said, noting his staff would give debtors rides home after their car is towed. “What we’re trying to do is collect the tax. We don’t want to take anybody’s car.”