Alexandria officials will file 93 suits in the city's general district court next month in what they describe as the first phase in a concerted effort to collect about $2 million in unpaid personal property taxes.
The action by the city attorney's office is in response to a City Council directive, issued last spring, which ordered city officials to crack down on delinquent taxpayers.
Officials admit privately that they are under pressure to collect overdue personal and property taxes and that they have lagged behind other area jurisdictions in doing so. The issue has become particularly sensitive in the city since it was revealed several weeks ago that Alexandria Mayor Frank E. Mann is a part-owner of a piece of waterfront property on which taxes have not been paid for some time.
Burton B. Hanbury Jr., an assistant city attorney, said the 93 suits to be filed next month represent only those residents with delinquent personal property taxes whose last names begin with the letter A or B, "which gives you some idea of the scope of the problem."
Hanbury expects that the number of suits to be filed will reach into the hundreds, but he hopes some residents will act before the city does. "Once we start to file suits, many people undoubtedly will come in and pay to avoid having a judgement made against them," he said.
Hanbury and Alexandria city attorney Cyril D. Calley emphasize that if the city does not act quickly, much of the potential tax revenue the city could recover will be lost because of the high rate of turnover among Alexandria residents. Calley said that once a person moves to another jurisdiction it becomes difficult to locate him.
Alexandria residents are required to pay personal property taxes on their automobiles, trailers and boats. Officials say many residents simply don't bother to register their cars with the city and avoid paying the tax.
Last spring, in preparing to bring the hundreds of personal property tax cases to court, officials chose a delinquent taxpayer at random and brought a suit against him. Hanbury, who would not name the person, said the man admitted he owed the city $1,500 in personal property taxes and arrangements were made for him to pay the money in installments. Hanbury said the amoung of money owed by individyals named in the 93 suits to be filed ranges from $20 to $2,000.
According to figures released by Alexandria officials, the city colected $5.9 million in personal property taxes and $34.7 million in real estate taxes in fiscal year 1976-1977.
A report by Howard J. Holton, the city's director of finance, said the city is owed more than $1 million in real estate taxes, but almost all of it has been owed for less than three years, which prevents any court action. Nevertheless, the city has collected more than $150,000 in late real estate taxes this year by notifying delinquent taxpayers.
While citizens who do not pay their personal property taxes can often get away with it, officials say the real estate tax tends to collect itself, because all outstanding taxes must be paid before a piece of real estate can be sold.
Moreover, officials say, most property owners pay their taxes before three years have passed to avoid having the city take them to court.
Officials also said some real estate owners choose to deposit the tax money owed the city in a bank because they can make more money from the interest rates than they would have to pay in penalties for late taxes. In Alexandria, there is a one-time 8 per cent penalty for late payment of real estate taxes. The penalty for late payment of personal property taxes is 10 per cent, however, plus an additional 8 per cent yearly interest on the money owed.
Alexandria officials are now preparing a test case to see if they can sell a small plot of land, 10 feet by 123 feet. on which real estate taxes have not been paid for many years. If the city wins the case, the land can be sold, allowing the city to collect the owed taxes, plus 10 per cent interest. The former owners would receive the remainder of the money from the sale.
City attorney Calley raised some doubts about the procedure, however, he said that the time and effort requred to prepare real estate tax cases were not always worth in terms of the amount of money the city would collect. Calley said research had discovered that the city is owed less than $100,000 from real estate taxes that have not been paid for three years or more. Most of that money, Calley added, is in small amounts.
"How much time will you spend or can you afford to spend on a $39 tax bill?" Calley asked during a telephone interview.
Although Fairfax County has hired a private law firm to prosecute delinquent real estate taxpayers, Alexandria officials say the situation there differs from the city. Fairfax has numeroud tracts of undeveloped land on which taxes have not been paid for years.