County weighs collection agency to target delinquent taxpayers

Rappahannock County owed almost $1.3 million since 1997; $763,000 outstanding since 2014; treasurer labels it ‘unacceptable’

Over the last 20 years, Rappahannock County has failed to collect nearly $1.3 million in billed real estate taxes. Since 2014, the amount still owed totals $763,000.

“To me this is unacceptable,” Rappahannock County Treasurer Debbie Knick, who has held the post since 2014, told the Rappahannock News.

Now, for the first time, and at no cost to law-abiding Rappahannock taxpayers, her office is looking to a private collection agency to recover what the county is owed in annual tax levies going back two decades.

Knick is scheduled to meet with the private firm, which has worked on behalf of other counties like Rappahannock, on Feb. 14. If the county decides to bring aboard the private agency, 20 percent of the total amount currently owed by each delinquent taxpayer would be tacked onto their existing bill to cover the collection costs.

From January 1997 to almost the close of January 2017, the county was still owed $1,229,804 in unpaid taxes (1,916 individual outstanding bills).

“Right now [delinquent taxpayers] are getting letters and notices,” Knick said. “If there is no reaction, I turn it over to the county attorney.”

After a period of two years, if the treasurer, working alongside the county attorney, is unable to either collect unpaid taxes or work out a tax payment plan, then the county can proceed with what is called a “judicial sale of real estate.”

When dealing with heirs to a property, the treasurer undertakes a slightly different notification process before the court can proceed with a property sale.

Knick said she is concentrating on collecting unpaid taxes for the most recent years.

“My focus goes back 5 to 10 years. That’s where the big [uncollected] money is,” she said.

The treasurer explained that her office is legally permitted to collect unpaid real estate levies going back 20 years. In other words those county residents who for whatever reasons did not pay their taxes for years prior to 1997 have virtually seen their slates wiped clean.

All said and done, Rappahannock County’s real estate tax collection rate is “pretty decent,” noted the treasurer, who is projecting a “97 percent” collection rate for 2016. Prior years have not always been as successful for the county, including as recently as 2013, when “total tax collections to the tax levy” were recorded at 90 percent.

Rappahannock County levied approximately $10 million in 2016 real estate taxes, with payments due last Dec. 5. As of this past week there was an unpaid balance just for the year of $432,700 (433 individual bills), although some of that total is being paid in installment plans.

Knick stressed that she is more than willing to work out tax payment plans with county residents who request them, but she is also determined to “collect 100 percent” of owed taxes.

“I want to make it very clear that I don’t think it’s acceptable” to avoid paying taxes, she said.

Dramatic changes in the treasurer’s office have taken place since Knick took over the post two-plus years ago. Among other accomplishments, she and her staff completed two significant audits; cleared out more than 50 years of boxed paperwork; and fully activated a new tax assessment, billing and recording software system in an office that even in the 21st century shied away from computers.

Knick, who most recently had been director of finance at Randolph Macon Academy, was chosen by the county to complete the term of former treasurer Frances Foster, who retired at the end of April 2014 after more than a half-century on the job. Knick ran unopposed in the November 2015 election and is serving a term of four years.

Among her duties, it is Knick’s responsibility to collect all taxes due to the county; receive and account for all other forms of revenue, including state income taxes and county license and permit fees; handle the county’s banking activities; and manage the investments of all existing county funds.

 

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