Getting the boot

Published 9:55 am Friday, June 10, 2011

COURTLAND—Word-of-mouth can be a powerful thing.

In less than two weeks, Southampton County has collected $110,560 in back taxes thanks in large part to a program that involves placing boots on vehicles owned by delinquent taxpayers.

Of that, $23,685 came from the 112 people whose vehicles were booted — making it impossible to drive them — between May 26 and Wednesday, while $86,874 came from other people who owed taxes.

“I would suspect a large portion of that was indirectly because of the boot,” said county Treasurer David Britt.

The City of Franklin as of Wednesday had collected $14,000, said Treasurer Dinah Babb.

“We have had six boots where all delinquent amounts have been paid,” Babb said. “The remainder has come from (45 to 50) taxpayers hearing or seeing activity and coming in on their own accord.”

In the county’s attempt to collect $1.7 million in back taxes and the city’s effort to collect $843,800, both are working with Virginia Auction and Collections Co. to locate and seize vehicles belonging to delinquent taxpayers.

The treasurers sent their delinquent lists to Virginia Auction. Using license-plate readers equipped with the treasurers’ information, Virginia Auction employees scan cars in parking lots, driveways and streets.

Once the reader locates a license plate matching a delinquent account, the agent verifies the vehicle’s identification and boots the car.

The agent also places a warrant explaining the seizure on the vehicle. A note is left for the owner to call the treasurer’s office to settle the tax account.

If payment is made before the close of business that day, the vehicle is not towed; the only cost is $30 to have the boot removed and a 20 percent collection fee.

If the treasurer’s office is closed, the vehicle will be towed, which is what happened to Stacey Stewart of Ivor on Monday. Her sport utility vehicle was booted when she came out of the grocery store.

“I work on a tugboat and was out of town and didn’t get off the boat until Tuesday,” said her husband, Karl Stewart. “I was in the middle of the James River and she called, crying and upset. There wasn’t a thing I could do.”

Karl Stewart then paid the $249 in personal property taxes for his three vehicles, which he said he owed from 2010. It cost him $260 to get back his 1998 Ford Expedition; Virginia Auction charges everyone a $200 towing fee.

He was upset because it took awhile for his wife to get a ride home with their 2-year-old granddaughter, Riley Olson, and the baby’s mother, Michelle Olson.

“I understand I owed the taxes,” Karl Stewart said. “They said they sent me a paper of what I owed, but I didn’t receive it.”

“I’m just kind of dumbfounded,” he continued. “Right now things are tight. I guarantee the country people out here will pay their taxes.”

Karl Stewart also questioned the $200 towing fee.

Britt said law allows a third party to collect fees for costs incurred in attempting to collect taxes. While the county assesses a 20 percent late fee on tax bills, Virginia Auction is paid through towing and boot removal fees.

Towns like Courtland and Boykins are seeing delinquent taxpayers paying their property and real estate bills, Britt said.

“I think we’ve had one or two,” said Boykins Mayor Spier Edwards. “We didn’t tell them we are not in the loop. I reckon they didn’t want to have their car booted.”