- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

Property-tax evaders and parking-ticket scofflaws in Arlington County take notice: Officials are collecting outstanding taxes and fines at the rate of about $900 an hour with the help of an electronic roving eye.

County officials last month began using the BootFinder, a small, hand-held camera that scans license plates of parked cars to identify people with delinquent property-tax bills and unpaid parking tickets.

The county spent $27,000 to buy the camera, which was developed by Alexandria company G2 Tactics, and has recovered about $900 each hour of its use, said Arlington County Treasurer Frank O’Leary.

“We have collected $29,847.51 on 72 vehicles in just 33 hours, since we began the program April 19,” Mr. O’Leary said. “So in the first month of operations, the camera has paid for itself.”

Two treasury workers patrol the city in a van, aiming the camera at the license plates of parked cars. The camera is connected to a laptop computer that compares the license owner’s name against a database of persons with outstanding taxes or fines.

If a car’s owner has any unpaid taxes or fines, the computer audibly informs the camera’s operator, who calls the treasurer’s office for verification. After the information is verified, the workers remove the car’s license plates and place a bright green levy sticker on the driver’s side windshield.

The entire process takes less than three minutes, said Michael B. Longhi, deputy treasurer for compliance.

“It could be dangerous, so we try to get in and out as fast as possible,” Mr. Longhi said, adding that the vehicles are unoccupied in most cases.

“We encounter most of the hostility when people come in to pay [outstanding debts],” he said. “But most people are resigned to the fact that they owe and just end up paying.”

In extreme cases, a wheel boot is placed on a tire, or the vehicle is impounded. The owner then has 10 days to pay the tax or fine before the car is auctioned.

“We have very little interest in selling cars,” Mr. O’Leary said. “Most people view [the fines] as a game and just say ‘I guess I lost’ and pay when they’re caught. The fact is, they owe it and it’s indisputable. Our motto is: ‘They can run, but they can’t hide.’”

The county has recorded about $4 million in unpaid property taxes and $1.8 million in unpaid parking-ticket fines. The statute of limitations is three years for unpaid parking tickets and four years for tax debts, Mr. Longhi said.

“We have collected $15,624 in taxes on 26 vehicles, an average of $600.92 per vehicle,” Mr. O’Leary said. “On one vehicle, we collected $2,170.91 in delinquent taxes.”

The minimum parking fine in Arlington County is $25, which doubles to $50 if it is not paid after 30 days. The county has recovered $14,223 in unpaid parking tickets on 46 vehicles, an average of $309.20 per vehicle.

“Some may say, ‘Why be so [stringent] just for parking tickets?’” Mr. O’Leary said. “But for us to come for you, you must owe at least $150 in parking tickets or taxes, a minimum of three citations and nine written notices.”

Arlington isn’t using the camera because it has an unusual problem with outstanding debts, Mr. O’Leary said. “We’re just always looking for new ways to skin the cat.”

The camera’s computer accesses the boot-eligible and stolen-auto data files instantly, said G2 Tactics President Andrew Bucholz. Originally developed to help police recover stolen vehicles, the camera has access to the National Crime Information Center database.

The program so far has recovered one stolen vehicle, Mr. O’Leary said.

The camera has several lenses, including infrared, that can read the license plates of parked or passing vehicles, Mr. O’Leary said.

It also can be mounted on a vehicle, enabling just one person to operate the van. But for safety purposes, it will remain a two-person operation, Mr. Longhi said.

Two full-time employees eventually will be assigned to the program, which will help clear a backlog of outstanding debts, Mr. O’Leary said.

“Once, I sent my guys out with a two-page-long list of tag numbers to find. I realized that we couldn’t do it that way because it’d take forever looking up every tag number to see if it’s on the list,” he said.

“This little baby does it for me. It’s our dream come true.”

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