Treasurer Campaign Hinges on Car Tax

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

Normally, a Democratic primary race for Arlington County treasurer doesn't attract much attention.

This year, however, one candidate has been exposed as delinquent in paying his taxes, and he, in turn, is accusing the incumbent of collecting a tax that he says Arlington County residents shouldn't even be paying.

Both issues are raising a stir nearing Tuesday's election.

Robert A. James, a lawyer who has lived in the county for eight years, has paid his personal property taxes late in four years, incurring fines and penalties, and received five tickets in the past two years for expired county car-tax decals or failure to get his car inspected.

"He's an unmitigated tax deadbeat" who is unworthy of the post, said civic activist and gadfly John Antonelli, who added that Francis X. O'Leary, on the other hand, is "arrogant" but "collects the taxes and collects them fairly."

In an interview, James acknowledged that he had failed to pay taxes in a "timely manner."

"It is correct that certain taxes were paid late, but they have been paid, with any penalties," he said. "I've learned from that experience."

James said he is running for treasurer because he and others have "issues" with how O'Leary has handled the job. Key among James's concerns are the trio of $40 tickets issued, $120 in all, for failure to display his county decal. He got dinged Dec. 7, again Dec. 15 and a third time Jan. 2.

James said that Arlington County's requirement to display a decal on a motor vehicle defies "common sense" because motorists receive the sticker in the mail whether they have paid the property tax or not and people are fined for not putting it on their windshields.

He said that Arlington should follow the example of other Virginia localities that have eliminated decals, turning to high-tech methods for exposing people who have not paid personal property taxes. The state Department of Motor Vehicles can block renewal of a driver's license or license plate, or decline to register a car if a computer search shows that taxes are unpaid, making county decal programs redundant, he said.

Last year, Fairfax County scrapped its county vehicle tax, eliminating the need for decals and the fines for not displaying them. Fairfax officials said it made more sense for police to direct traffic and enforce safety violations than to cite tax infractions. The county lost $20 million a year in revenue, however.

Other jurisdictions have done away with the decal but kept the underlying tax.

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