2019 Arlington tax-delinquency rate

Arlington Treasurer Carla de la Pava and members of her staff pose on Aug. 16, 2019, after the announcement that the county’s tax-delinquency rate had hit another record low.

Nearly a billion tax dollars passed through the Arlington treasurer’s office during the 2019 fiscal year, and efforts by staff in the office helped push the county’s tax-delinquency rate to another record low.

“You came together, you motivated each other to get the job done,” said Carolyn Meadows, the deputy treasurer for compliance, during an Aug. 16 staff celebration.

At the event, Treasurer Carla de la Pava announced that the delinquency rate for real estate and personal property had fallen to 0.177 percent, down from 0.187 percent a year before and the lowest not just in county history, but perhaps the lowest ever among any jurisdiction in Virginia history.

“It is absolutely awesome,” said de la Pava, who has built on efforts by her predecessor, Frank O’Leary, to squeeze the delinquency rate down using both carrots and sticks:

• On the stick side, the office will seize vehicles and business property; issue bank liens and win court judgments; and will scour social media to find scofflaws who try to disappear from their radar.

• On the carrot side, the office works to be proactive, supporting taxpayers who find themselves delinquent due to special circumstances, and even provides lollipops to those who come to the counter to work out repayment.

“There’s no place in the world that does it like we do,” said Meadows, who like other staff members at the celebration was decked out in a customized baseball jersey.

(Getting into the baseball spirit, staff from the treasurer’s office even composed and sang a new collection-themed song to the tune of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”)

Perhaps the most stunning number reported on Aug. 16 was related to real estate: The annual countywide tax levy for commercial and residential property over the past year was more than $800 million, yet only $96,000 remains delinquent, counting both the current and preceding years.

On the vehicle-tax side, the delinquency rate for the $123 million that was due over the past year also is at an all-time-low rate.

“It’s a great team,” said de la Pava, who was serving as chief deputy to O’Leary upon his retirement in 2014, then was elected to succeed him. She is unopposed in the November election.

When O’Leary took office in 1984, the delinquency rate stood at more than 8 percent. Upon his retirement three decades later, the rate had been cut to 0.33 percent, and has since been reduced almost in half.

Over the past year, the treasurer’s office has started billing owners shortly after they sell their vehicles or move them out of the county, rather than waiting until the regular billing cycle in the fall. The effort brought in about $400,000 earlier than normal, and is expected to ease the staff crunch that occurs when car-tax bills are mailed out (as they will be shortly) and the office receives billing inquiries from the public by phone and online.

A year ago, when de la Pava announced the tax-delinquency rate had declined to 0.21 percent, she said her goal was simply to maintain it at its current level in 2019. Being able to cut it even further was “phenomenal,” she said at the Aug. 16 event.

Normally during these celebrations, the treasurer announces the tax-delinquency-rate goal for the next year, but de la Pava opted against it.

“We’re just going to party today,” she said. (There may be another party when the new goal is announced.)

Few other jurisdictions in Virginia publish their tax-delinquency rates, and in recent years, none has intimated that its rate rivals Arlington’s.

Is there a limit to how far the delinquency rate can be reduced? “I don’t know how low we can go,” de la Pava said a number of years back. “But what I do know is we can always do better.”

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