Treasurers collecting most taxes in area

Shenandoah and Warren County treasurers continue to collect most back taxes in spite of the high number of delinquencies.

Delinquent taxpayers owe Shenandoah County approximately $4 million in real estate and personal property taxes over the past five years. Of that amount, $2.4 million in personal property taxes and $1.6 million in real estate remain unpaid. More than $3.6 million — $1.76 million in real estate and $1.84 million in personal property taxes — remains unpaid in Warren County.

However, given that treasurers’ offices receive payments from property owners every day, these numbers change often.

But Shenandoah County had collected 96 percent of the personal property taxes and 98 percent of the real estate taxes owed since 2010 as of earlier this month. Warren County had collected more than 97 percent of the personal property taxes and more than 98 percent of the real estate taxes owed over five years, as of Thursday.

While all or most of the delinquent taxes could go a long way to cover budgetary expenses if paid off immediately, treasurers say it’s impossible to collect 100 percent of what’s owed.

But treasurers come closer each year, especially as they use tools to help collect on delinquent accounts.

Shenandoah County Treasurer Cindy George explained Thursday that numerous factors keep her office from collecting all taxes owed. The agency likely cannot collect taxes from the owner if he or she dies or moves out of the area or state. Likewise, an erroneous or uncorrected assessment could prevent collection. Bankruptcy also can prevent the treasurer from collecting the taxes owed.

As George has explained, property-tax collections is an ongoing process. Treasurers use various methods to collect on delinquent accounts. Approximately 80 percent of all delinquent, personal property accounts in Shenandoah County have DMV Stops — a program through which the treasurer informs the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles of the unpaid taxes and the state agency prevents an owner from renewing the vehicle registration.

George also uses bank and wage liens, property seizure and warrants in debt. The treasurer also matches county and school employee names with the delinquent taxes.

Local governments write off unpaid personal property taxes after five years, but delinquent real estate tax bills stay on the books for 20 years. In the case of real estate delinquencies, any property delinquent for three years is subject to a bill-in-equity sale process.

While the delinquent taxes are higher in later years, those amounts decrease as property owners pay their bills, treasurers have explained.

Warren County Treasurer Wanda Bryant recently enlisted the help of the Sheriff’s Office to seize vehicles from delinquent account holders.

The Warren County treasurer and the county attorney’s office teamed up about six years ago to increase enforcement of tax collections. The county attorney’s office has collected approximately $740,000 in delinquent personal property taxes since 2008. Assistant County Attorney Dan Whitten handles the collections through the court system.

“So I would say that’s pretty good results over a six-year period,” Whitten said recently.

County Attorney Blair Mitchell took over collection efforts to collect personal property taxes for the treasurer in 2008. Mitchell collected $363,913 in 2008 and 2009. Whitten began collecting taxes in February 2010 after Mitchell requested that the county add the assistant position to his office.

The treasurer’s office provides to the county attorney’s office a group of cases from a particular year. The cases are all for accounts that have been delinquent for several years. For example, the treasurer gave 400 cases to the county attorney’s office at the beginning of 2014.

Once the treasurer’s office has used its tools, the county attorney begins its collection process. The office has a warrant in debt issued through the court system, Whitten explained. The debtor then comes to court and a judge hears the case. Should the debtor not appear, the county seeks a default judgment, Whitten said. Through the courts, the county attorney would ask the debtor a series of questions under oath about their property and financial situation. The county and the debtor would work out a payment arrangement and to pay off the debt within 12 months, Whitten said.

The treasurer abates delinquent taxes after five years, Whitten said. However, a court-issued judgment against the property owner remains in effect for 20 years, allowing the county to continue to collect on the debt, Whitten said.

Many localities use private law firms to go after delinquent taxpayers. The treasurer can add a fee for attorney services to the overall debt, Whitten said.

Warren County enlists the local law firm of Pond, Pond & Williams to collect delinquent real estate taxes.

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