Should Loudoun dump its windshield tax decals? That’s a question coming before the Board of Supervisors.
Other large Virginia counties have moved away from the window stickers but Loudoun Treasurer H. Roger Zurn said the tried-and-true program is the best way to ensure residents are paying their fair share of taxes.
The issue came before the board’s finance committee last week. Under questioning from supervisors, Zurn and Sheriff Mike Chapman offered somewhat different views on the program.
Loudoun charges each vehicle owner $25 for the annual decal, but you can’t buy one until your personal property taxes are paid in full.
For the county government, the decals are a $7 million revenue stream. It cost only $95,500 to make and mail the decals each year.
For Zurn, the stickers are badge of tax compliance—a car not displaying a decal might be evidence of someone trying to skip out on payments. Since 1997, Zurn has worked with the Sheriff’s Office on Project Fairness, a program that dedicates two deputies to exclusively seek out vehicles lacking decals and issue tickets requiring the fees—and taxes—be paid. The Treasurer’s Office credits the program with more than $20 million in revenue that would not have been collected without that additional enforcement.
In 2006, Fairfax County abandoned its decal program, electing instead to add a $33 registration fee to vehicle owners’ personal property tax bills. The county reports that the move away from the windshield stickers hasn’t hurt its tax collections, claiming revenue collections of 102 percent to 99 percent billing annually since 2012, according to a staff report prepared for the committee. Zurn raised doubts about those figures. Chesapeake and Chesterfield counties, which also stopped using decals in 2006, reported collections ranging from 65 percent to 94 percent over the ensuing years. Zurn said Loudoun collects 96 percent to 99 percent annually.
Several supervisors suggested that employing new technology, such as license plate readers—could accomplish the same goals. Sheriff Chapman said he’d like to do more research on the options, but suggested that simply charging a registration fee and mailing violation letters to those with outstanding tax bills might work.
Zurn disagreed. “I have no doubt that, if we do away with decals, the delinquency rate would increase,” he told the panel. He said he viewed the suggestion of adding a local registration fee on every personal property tax bill as “abhorrent.” Zurn warned that another suggested alternative—raising the county’s $4.20 personal property tax rate to make up for the $7 million in lost decal fees—would disproportionally hit residents with more expensive vehicles.
Board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) is among the large contingent of county residents who dread scraping off the decals each year. “I hate the decal. I hate it,” he said.
However, Buona urged his colleagues to tread carefully, calling the current system a very effective program. The decal approach is particularly effective at identifying—or catching—newcomers who may not have transferred the official address of where their cars are “garaged”—the determining factor in which jurisdiction gets to assess the taxes. The sooner new residents get their cars registered in Loudoun, the more taxes the county will collect from them, he said.
Committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) questioned whether the decal enforcement was effective, noting that he sees—and gets complaints about—lots of cars without window decals in his south Loudoun neighborhoods. That’s the point, Zurn said, noting that deputies and neighbors can quickly see which vehicles may be in violation.
While Letourneau and Buona said the program seems to be working effectively, the committee voted 5-0 to support Supervisor Tony Buffington’s (R-Blue Ridge) request to have the Treasurer’s Office and Sheriff’s Office take “a deeper dive” into decal alternatives. A police officer, Buffington said he sees promise in the ability of license plate readers to flag tax scofflaws.
According to the staff report, eight cities and 15 counties in Virginia issue decals; 15 cities and 48 counties charge a local vehicle registration fee ranging from $10 to $40.75.