Concerns voiced over car seizures

FRONT ROYAL – The Warren County treasurer’s decision to start seizing vehicles from delinquent taxpayers last week shocked, worried and angered many people.

The Board of Supervisors heard from a longtime automobile dealer on Tuesday who voiced concern about the action and how the effort might affect similar businesses.

Gary Eaton runs Eaton Motor Sales off Strasburg Road and learned about the initiative Friday. Eaton said he worries that the effort would single out automobile sellers.

“It struck me really hard and surprised [me] that something like that would be [in effect] since it does affect us,” Eaton said.

Treasurer Wanda Bryant enlisted the aid of the Sheriff’s Office on Thursday to begin impounding vehicles whose owners had not paid at least two years worth of personal property taxes. Bryant indicated then that she also plans to look into using boots on the vehicles whose owners have not paid taxes. The Treasurer’s Office fielded numerous phone calls — not all of them pleasant — and many vehicle owners showed up to pay their taxes, Bryant said Friday.

Eaton went to the Treasurer’s Office and said he came away with more questions than answers. He then contacted Supervisor Daniel Murray Jr. who advised that he come speak at the meeting.

Eaton said the treasurer did not know at the time if the Sheriff’s Office could seize the repossessed vehicles from its lot. Eaton said he also wondered if the treasurer could seize a tractor or other type of vehicle from an owner.

“How far does this go?” Eaton asked. “To me this whole thing has sort of got the cart before the horse.”

Eaton also asked how long the county has been able to seize vehicles. Bryant told him the option has been on the books for years. The previous treasurer did not enforce the rule.

“Why are we getting strapped with this now from Warren County?” Eaton said. “I believe that this needs to be further studied.”

Chairman Richard Traczyk said the board was not, to his knowledge, notified that the Treasurer’s Office would start this practice but asked county officials to respond.

County Attorney Blair Mitchell, whose office works with the treasurer to collect unpaid vehicle taxes, tried to answer some of Eaton’s questions.

“It’s not a Warren County thing; it’s a Virginia law that if there are personal property taxes owed on a vehicle, the treasurer of the locality has the right to boot it, to seize it and have the sheriff sell it,” Mitchell said. “Now, before that happens, any lien holders are to be notified … They have certain options.

“I would hope that the treasurer would work with the lien holders and make sure that something is not sold out from under them in that kind of a situation,” Mitchell added.

Chances are the treasurer and the Sheriff’s Office will not know that a repossessed vehicle in arrears on taxes is sitting on the business lot, Mitchell said. The attorney said a dealership should check with the Treasurer’s Office to see if taxes are owed on a vehicle before repossessing it.

Mitchell said he is unaware that his office has seized a vehicle for failing to pay taxes. The county attorney’s office uses other means to collect unpaid vehicle taxes, usually by making payment arrangements with the owner.

County Administrator Douglas Stanley voiced support for the treasurer’s efforts. Stanley compared the program to how the county can try to collect unpaid real estate taxes by taking and selling the property. The county collects the unpaid taxes and penalties and the lien holders receive what they are owed out of the sale.

However, as Stanley explained, personal property tax debt only stays on the county books for three years, leaving a shorter window in which to collect unpaid levies.

“What we’re finding, and what she’s relayed to me is that you have people that buy a new car and in two or three years haven’t made a single payment on personal property tax,” Stanley said. “So we’re in danger of losing a year or so of taxes unless they go after them.”

Critics of the program say the county would take away a person’s way to drive to work and thus to make money to pay the taxes.

Owners having trouble paying their tax bill can talk to someone in the Treasurer’s Office and work out a payment plan, Stanley and Mitchell said.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com