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Philadelphia 'top 10' list: tax un-payers

At a news conference earlier this year, Philadelphia Mayor William Green III held up a bunch of bright orange carrots. "We've taken the carrot approach with tax delinquents long enough!" he thundered, tossing them into a trash can. Then he picked up a wooden stick and declared: "So this is what we're going to use right now."

In searching for the biggest stick he could find, the mayor found one in the form of publicity -- a tactic believed to have been pioneered by Boston. And, as it did there, it is paying off here with a bang.

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Every month, the city's Department of Revenue publishes the names of the "Ten Most Wanted" real estate tax delinquents.

Using this technique, on top of traditional legal proceedings, the city calculates it has collected $2 million more than it normally would have collected in real estate taxes since around the beginning of March. Some delinquents who have owed tens of thousands of dollars have paid up.

Besides, the "Ten Most Wanted" publicitytactic, 100 personal lawsuits are being filed every month in common pleas court against business tax deliquents. Another 300 lawsuits are filed every month in municipal court to collect taxes from individuals owing less than $1,000 each.

In the meantime, other cities are regarding the Philadelphia tax collection program with increasing interest, and at least one of them, New York, could launch a similar one soon. (Boston, in September 1977, even had a "rogues' gallery" of leading tax delinquents whose photographs were publicized by the news media. Although the gallery only lasted about 30 days, it was part of a larger 2 1/2-year effort to crack down on tax delinquents, according to city auditor Newell Cook. Mr. Cook says the names of tax delinquents still are occasionally publicized there.)

At the heart of the issue is a growing determination by city administrations around the nation to collect as much revenue owed them as possible in the face of widespread fiscal restraint.

"As resources get tougher for state and local governments, they will watch very closely their uncollected taxes and try to put more emphasis on collection procedures," says Donald Beatty, executive director of the Municipal Financers Officers Association.

"It is absolutely inexcusable, the laxity with which the city and school district viewed tax deliquency in the past," Mayor Green said recently. "Estimates are, $138 million has not been collected over the years -- most of which is now uncollectable. Evidently, some people in this city think they can get away with anything because, in fact, they have in the past. They think they can flout the law, avoid paying their taxes, and do so without the slightest fear of penalty."

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New York, over the last few years, has stepped up its campaign to collect back property taxes, says Joe O'Brien, Mayor Edward Koch's assistant press secretary. Nevertheless, millions of tax dollars are still deliquent.

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