Delinquency in payment of taxes in Arlington was so chronic when Treasurer Frank O'Leary took office in 1984, he decided drastic action was in order.

O'Leary assigned 10 of his staff members to a special team, dubbed the taxbusters squad, to track down current and former Arlington residents in this country and abroad who had not paid their taxes.

The effort, and others he has planned for later this year, should reduce the county's tax delinquency rate from 9.04 percent in 1982 -- the Northern Virginia area's highest then and one he criticized in his election bid -- to 4.1 or 4.3 percent, one of the region's lowest, by the end of this fiscal year, O'Leary said. The squad collected nearly $2.7 million in delinquent property taxes during its most recent crackdown.

"They're taking us seriously," O'Leary said about county residents who, in the past, successfully have avoided paying their real estate or personal property taxes, but are now paying up.

Part of the reason for the program's success, O'Leary said, is the "psychology" of collecting and paying taxes.

"They've heard about our program," he said. "They don't want to end up in court and they don't want to have this sort of stigma."

Members of the team compete for a top tax-free prize of $1,000 awarded to the one who can collect the most back taxes.

Last year's effort resulted in the collection of $1.9 million in delinquent real estate and personal property taxes, which are levied on cars, boats, planes and office equipment.

This year's crackdown, O'Leary said, exceeded his expectations of a $1.5 million collection when the tally for the 13-week taxbusters' contest that ended Feb. 14 hit almost $2.7 million.

"I'm impressed with the improvement," O'Leary said, adding that the money should help the county make up anticipated losses in federal aid.

This year the special team collected about $1.3 million in overdue real estate taxes and $849,000 in unpaid personal property taxes.

Another $555,000 in those two tax categories was struck from the "overdue" books when the taxbusters learned that those owing them were eligible for the county's tax-deferral or program for the elderly and poor. (Those taxes come due when the properties involved are sold.)

Under Virginia law, delinquent personal property taxes can be collected for only the previous five years while the statute of limitations on real estate taxes is 20 years.

The winner of this year's $1,000 top prize was squad member Martha Lyons, a Reston woman who collected $160,906 in back taxes. The second prize of $500 went to Brenda Torres for her $158,784 effort and third prize of $300 to Terry Redwine, who collected $147,258. The other seven members of the squad were given $100 each.

O'Leary said the crackdown is carefully coordinated with the commissioner of revenue's office, the sheriff's department and the county's office of technology and information services.

If a taxpayer does not respond to a mailed delinquency notice within three weeks, the treasurer's office serves notice of its intent to get a warrant. If the taxes are still not paid three weeks after the second warning, the sheriff's office serves the warrant, notifying the delinquent taxpayer to appear in General District Court for a civil hearing where further fines and penalties can be assessed.

To date, more than 1,480 warrants have been served and another 2,350 are in the process, O'Leary said.

As a result of the taxbusters squad, he said, delinquent accounts have dropped from more than 11,000 in 1984 to about 7,000 today.