Booting program halted — for now

Published 10:28 pm Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Suffolk city attorney said Wednesday her office is working with the treasurer’s office to resolve an issue regarding the collection of personal property taxes.

The booting and towing of vehicles whose owners are delinquent on their taxes, which had been going on for a couple of months, has temporarily ceased while city officials work out the legalities of the controversial collection method.

Treasurer Ron Williams said Wednesday that his office hired Clarence Brooks to help with collections. Brooks, in turn, hired Suffolk-based Virginia Auction Company, which drives around looking for license plates listed on a delinquent list.

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When one is found, a “boot” that immobilizes the vehicle is placed on one of the tires, and a notice is left for the owner to pay up.

Williams said the program brought in about $129,000 in the short time it was ongoing.

But when the city got wind of the situation, the program was ceased. City Attorney Helivi Holland said during Wednesday’s City Council meeting that her staff could not find any evidence that council had authorized it.

Williams said he has been trying to get approval for the program for about five years. Other localities surrounding the city already collect delinquent taxes in this way, Williams said.

“We’re almost a hole in a doughnut,” he said. “All around us is using these collection actions.”

Williams said those who are communicating with his office to work out a payment plan and trying to follow up on those plans will not get placed on the list to be booted. The process is a last resort to collect taxes from folks who are uncooperative, he said.

Kevin Appel, legal counsel to the Treasurers’ Association of Virginia, spoke on the topic at Wednesday’s meeting.

“I wrote the law” to give localities the authority to hire a private collector, he said. He also warned the City Council they could open themselves up to legal action if they became too involved in the tax collection process.

“The more involved you are, the more likely a bad outcome could affect you,” he said.

City Council members said the staff was working to resolve the issue legally.

“I’m hoping if there are any discrepancies, and we work as a team, we can correct those discrepancies,” Vice Mayor Charles Brown said.

Mayor Linda T. Johnson added: “All we need to do is figure out what we need to do to make the process work.”

Williams encouraged anyone who is delinquent on taxes to contact his office at 514-4284 to work out a payment plan.