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Wednesday, October 27, 2021
ArlingtonTax-delinquency rate still at rock-bottom level

Tax-delinquency rate still at rock-bottom level

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Over the past year, staff of the Arlington treasurer’s office has been tasked with collecting $997 million in taxes due on real estate and personal property (both vheicles and business property).

To date, more than $995 million of it is in hand.

Treasurer Carla de la Pava on Aug. 16 confirmed to the Sun Gazette that the county’s tax-delinquency rate for the past year stood at 0.18 percent, a near-record despite the challenges of collecting taxes due during the pandemic.

“Our staff works hard,” de la Pava said in an Aug. 18 Sun Gazette interview. She noted that just $212,882 of real-estate taxes and $1,610,246 of personal-property taxes remains outstanding – the total of $1,823,128 being down from $2,142,238 a year before.

The treasurer’s office long has made collection of all taxes due its goal, starting with the election of Frank O’Leary in 1983 (at a time when the delinquency rate stood at something like 8 percent). O’Leary’s judicious use of both the carrot and stick helped to whittle down tax delinquencies.

By the time of O’Leary’s retirement from elected office in 2014, the tax-delinquency rate had fallen to 0.33 percent (of $787 million due that year); de la Pava, who succeeded him, continued to find ways to chip away at it.

COVID came roaring in during the spring of 2020, and it not only upended daily life, but the treasurer’s office, as well.

“We had to reinvent everything,” said de la Pava, praising Jack Belcher and his staff in the technology office of the Arlington government for their support.

“The deployment of technology was fast and immediate,” she said.

Shortly after the initial burst of COVID resulted in government employees sent to work from home, the treasurer’s office began bringing back some staff (about a dozen) to provide in-office services to other county-government offices.

“Even in the very beginning, [some staff] were in one or two days per week,” said Kim Rucker, the chief deputy treasurer.

In August 2020, the office reopened to the public, and this past January all staff returned to in-office work. There has been no intra-office transmission of COVID, de la Pava said.

There has been routine office turnover, but the COVID crisis has not accelerated it. “We had normal retirement [and other departures] – maybe even less than average,” Rucker said.

(Three new treasurer’s-office personnel arrived the very day in March 2020 that the government shut down offices in a COVID frenzy, sending employees home. Those three were dispatched to work on more pressing government needs while a plan to train them “virtually” could be set up, de la Pava said.)

The actual delinquency rate as of Aug. 14 stood at 0.183 percent, but would have been 0.18 had the delinquency list not included two properties that have proved a unique challenge for county officials.

Those parcels have no known owners, but under state law there must be two years of effort to collect back taxes until they can be sold off in a tax sale. That event is on the horizon, de la Pava said.

In addition to collecting real-estate and personal-property taxes – which collectively should surpass $1 billion for the first time next year – the treasurer’s office is responsible for a host of other fees and fines. Most hard-hit over the pandemic era have been hotels, de la Pava said; her office is working with them and other impacted taxpayers to offer access to loans and payment plans.

In normal times, the treasurer will announce a new goal for the coming year when the fresh tax-delinquency rate is announced. De la Pava said this year, she was going to take some time to consider what it should be.

In all likelihood, the goal will be lower than the 2021 rate. “I do believe we can do better,” the treasurer said.

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