Forget going to Mauritania, Kuwait, Egypt, Singapore, Pakistan, or even Fairfax County.
The "taxbusters" in the Arlington County treasurer's office have already tracked down delinquent Arlington taxpayers in those locales and have pledged to get any others who depart the county without paying overdue taxes.
"It's pretty much like bounty-hunting type of work. You go out there and you get your leads and you go after them," said Donald Sims, one of the 11-member special tax-collection squad Treasurer Frank O'Leary calls his "swat team." The squad members, who are all full- or part-time county workers, call themselves the "taxbusters."
Since Nov. 15, when the taxbusters first met in O'Leary's office to begin the unprecedented tax-collection effort, more than $500,000, or nearly half the county's unpaid 1984 personal property taxes, has been collected. (An additional $3 million in overdue taxes dating from 1979 also has been collected in a separate effort.)
The taxbusters are pursuing the remaining unpaid 1984 taxes on cars, boats and office equipment with a vengeance -- and an unusual incentive: In addition to their regular paychecks, the county has posted a $1,000 reward for whoever collects the most by today, the contest deadline. The first three runners-up also get cash prizes.
Members of the group have heard excuses from many of the 4,615 tax delinquents they've written, called or visited -- days, nights and weekends.
"One person said he couldn't pay his taxes because he had just been bitten by a snake," recalled taxbuster Kathleen McKessor. "Or you call and they say: 'I'll have to get back to you. I'm on my way out the door to my husband's funeral.' We've had three people give us that answer . . . . I've become very cynical in this job."
The tax collectors work at the courthouse in a room of cluttered desks with constantly ringing beige touch-tone telephones hidden under endless reams of computer printouts, half-full coffee mugs and wilting poinsettias. On the wall is a tally sheet, giving the latest breakdown on individual collections, and a phony $1,000 bill as a reminder.
As of Saturday, Gary Sabean, a former tow-truck operator, and Jeanette Williams, a retired department store bill collector, were in a dead heat, each having collected more than $47,000, or about 41 percent of the unpaid taxes assigned to them. "The competition is picking up speed like crazy," Williams said.
Arlington's personal property tax bills were mailed Aug. 15 and were due Sept. 15. A few weeks later, past-due notices were mailed, followed up by notices of intent to issue civil warrants, and then the warrants, delivered by deputy sheriffs. Just the threat of a warrant, said Marie DeCline, head of the treasurer's delinquency section, "will usually get 'em in here."
As a rule, the scofflaws have to pay the back taxes, penalties, interest and court costs. Some also get their cars impounded, including a man who appealed to Deputy Treasurer Kevin Appel to get his car back to attend the funeral of an aunt who had died at the Pentagon when her throat hemorrhaged. "They really get clinical sometimes," O'Leary said.
The taxbusters have the discretion to give hardship cases reprieves and to make arrangements for installment payments. But they all say the worst delinquents are the large, multinational corporations with branch offices or staff cars garaged in Arlington and persons with Porsches, Mercedes-Benzes, Volvos and Cadillacs.
"There was a man with an '84 Mercedes-Benz, and he tells you he can't afford the taxes," said Sabean. "I want to know how does he make his car payments then?"
Williams is hot on the trail of a reputed prince from a Middle Eastern country she said owes $732 on his Cadillac. "If he's not paid up by Jan. 18, there's a warrant going out on him. He's got plenty of money, so there's no reason in the world he couldn't pay it," she said. But then Williams said she doubts it would do much good to issue a warrant for him if he is not in this country, or claims to be a diplomat.
Foreign Service officers who have left Arlington for duty overseas are the most conscientious about paying overdue bills, the taxbusters said. Some have called repeatedly from outposts in Belgium and West Germany to assure the taxbusters that the check is in the mail.
As a rule, most tax delinquents, said taxbuster Deanna Frey, are well intentioned and cooperative. Generally, they forgot to notify the commissioner of revenue's office that they moved out of the county, and don't realize they are liable for the time the car was in Arlington, she said. People who fall in this category and live outside Virginia -- if they can be found -- are contacted by private collection agencies.
Although the contest ends today, that won't mean an end to collecting overdue taxes, said O'Leary, who firmly believes everyone should pay up. The sentiment is infectious, according to taxbuster John Weyforth, who said: "This is the first year I've ever paid my taxes on time."