Petersburg’s treasurer says his strategy of publicizing the names of delinquent taxpayers in a local newspaper is working, and he plans to release another wave of names — a strategy that has infuriated some residents.
Kevin A. Brown on Tuesday defended his controversial strategy that he says has helped him collect at least $2 million in unpaid taxes since he had the names published in The Progress-Index in April. But the city’s total delinquency still stands at about $8 million in unpaid real estate and personal property taxes.
Brown said that next month, he wants to publish an updated list in the newspaper that he hopes will enable him to further reduce the number of delinquent accounts.
“I don’t know why people are not paying their taxes, but they want the city to increase their services. We can only maintain these services if people pay what they owe,” Brown said in an interview.
Brown’s effort comes as the city works to overcome a major fiscal crisis.
The city is dealing with nearly $18 million in unpaid obligations and working to close a $12 million gap in the current budget, a number that has grown since earlier this year, when then-City Manager William E. Johnson III blamed Brown for a shortfall in personal property taxes because of residents who failed to make their tax payments.
The City Council fired Johnson in March, because many residents held him responsible for the city’s financial woes. But Brown, an elected official who was first voted into office in 2009, remains in his post, pointing toward the city’s financial managers for failing to adjust expenditures to match the city’s tax base.
“The city has to make sure we receive these revenues, but we also need to understand what they are for and that we don’t spend more than we take in,” he said. “We have to talk about how to reduce expenditures and increase our revenue.”
Brown doesn’t consider his making public the names of tax evaders, which angered many residents, a form of public shaming. He sees it as a legitimate way of informing residents how much they owe.
“We are doing well as far as collecting the money, (and) I am going to continue to use these collection strategies,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know why so many Petersburg residents are behind on their tax payments.
“I wish I could tell you, but nobody has come in to say, ‘Mr. Brown, I can’t pay because we are in a certain type of situation’ and ask for a payment plan,” Brown said. “I get very few people coming in to dispute what they are paying.”
Brown also said that he has started to clean up the city’s real estate and personal property books to adjust assessments after it became known that the city won’t receive nearly $1 million it planned on because revenue from personal property taxes had been overestimated.
Personal property and real estate taxes are the two largest revenue streams in Petersburg.
“In some cases, assessments need to be reconciled, and we are in the process of doing that,” Brown said. The treasurer’s office is working with Taxing Authority Consulting Services, a Virginia law firm that works exclusively with government entities to manage revenue accounts, to get “a truer number of our actual account.”
Brown also plans to continue his work with Propel Financial Services to help refinance delinquent real estate taxes, allowing taxpayers to bring their accounts current and to avoid additional penalties. Propel has collected $653,000 through Aug. 31.
In an effort to move forward, Brown plans to share collection results at the monthly City Council meetings, and in collaboration with the Richmond-based law firm Sands Anderson will hold a tax foreclosure sale in November.
For many city residents, Brown’s efforts are coming too late.
Gina Harrison with Clean Sweep Petersburg, a group of activists pushing for more local government accountability, said Brown should have “reached out to his peers in neighboring localities” to strategize on the best and most effective options available to collect the back taxes, “while making these practices part of everyday collection practices going forward, not just when the city is in a crisis.”
Petersburg’s city charter requires that the treasurer at the very least “report to the City Council at the end of each fiscal year, and oftener, if required, to give a full and detailed account of all receipts and expenditures during that year and the state of the treasury.”