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Can You Trust Your Tax Collector?

by Ethan Fry | Sep 6, 2012 11:34 pm

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Posted to: Ansonia, Derby, Oxford, Seymour, Shelton, Ansonia Tax Investigation

State lawmakers have unanimously passed a bill that mandates a formal program to train, test and require the certification of tax collection personnel.

Oh, wait . . . sorry. That was 13 years ago.

The bill became law — but the standards it mentions have never been put into place.

The information, first mentioned earlier this month in a story by WNPR radio and the CT Mirror, certainly raises eyebrows in the Valley, where Ansonia, Derby and Oxford have all had scandals recently involving tax department officials.

The Law

As it stands, certification for tax collectors isn’t mandated in the state.

But, in 1999, Connecticut lawmakers unanimously passed a bill concerning a committee “for the purpose of developing and maintaining a program and procedures for the training, examination and certification of tax collection personnel.”

Click here to read the law.

It directs the committee — made up of tax collectors from throughout the state — to recommend standards for the certification of tax collectors and those who work in tax collector’s offices.

It further instructs the Secretary of the State’s Office of Policy and Management (OPM) to review the proposals from the tax collector committee and adopt regulations.

More than a decade later, the committee and OPM are still working on it.

Say What?

The reason for the delay depends on who you ask. Reasons given to the Valley Indy included it just wasn’t a priority, OPM and the tax collectors could never agree on the details, and — hey, that’s state government for ya.

Photo: Ethan Fry“My understanding is there’s still mutual effort being made,” said GianCarl Casa, an OPM spokesman. “It’s just turned out to be a much longer process than I think anyone envisioned.”

While the law languished under the administrations of both Gov. John Rowland and Gov. M. Jodi Rell, Casa said the Malloy administration wants to revisit the issue — especially in light of what has been going on inside local city and town halls.

“The process had been ongoing for a decade by the time we got here,” Casa said. “One of the goals of this administration has been to try to build people’s faith in government and make government efficient and trustworthy. To that end we would like to see the certification go forward because we want people to have confidence that what they’re paying in taxes is accurate and correct and they can trust that what’s being done is done well.”

The Public’s (Dis)Trust?

That could be a relief to Valley residents, where it’s been tax departments gone wild in recent months.

Confidence is waning among some residents, who shared their thoughts about the local tax scandals on the Valley Indy’s Facebook page Thursday night.

“Complete lack oversight on behalf of city hall . . . time to privatize,” said Stuart Green, a Derby native who lives in Naugatuck.

“Bottom line is corruption is everywhere. It’s in every single town. I don’t care what anyone says. It’s all about who gets caught,” said Ansonia’s Noreen DeCiucis.

“Small town good ole boy mentality where the feeling is they can’t get caught,” said Ansonia’s David Rhodes.

Click here to read more people sound off.

The Investigations

Here’s recap of the local scandals:

The state’s attorney’s office is currently investigating former Ansonia Tax Collector Bridget Bostic after the Valley Indy published a story saying she gave out documents to city officials — and her mother — saying they had paid car taxes when, in fact, they had not paid. She has since resigned.

In Oxford, former tax collector Karen Guillet faces five years in prison after pleading guilty in July to first-degree larceny. She admitted stealing $243,902.18 from taxpayers.

FILE PHOTOIn Derby, city officials said a former tax department clerk “mishandled” cash payments from residents and “manipulated” city data. Derby’s officials have been tight-lipped about precisely what happened because they worked out a deal promising not to file a police complaint if the clerk pays the city $9,000.

Meanwhile, in Shelton, the tax office is fine — but last week cops hauled off computers and documents from the finance department. State police are investigating the apparent theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars of city funds.

Lisa Biagiarelli, the tax collector for the City of Norwalk and the chairperson of the Connecticut Tax Collectors Association’s (CTCA) Certification Committee, said the Valley tax office scandals have whittled the public’s trust.

“It’s going to take 10 years to recover from the black eye we got,” Biagiarelli said. “It’s just a very bad year in terms of public confidence in tax collectors in Connecticut.”

She may be right, because in Seymour, where there hasn’t been a peep about money missing or sketchy tax office employees, First Selectman Kurt Miller Tuesday called for the town do a special audit just to reassure the public.

Voluntary Certification

There is a certification program in place for tax collectors, run through the Connecticut Tax Collector’s Association.

Biagiarelli said it consists of taking four 8- to 10-week courses, each with its own exam, in addition to a comprehensive final exam and a requirement of three years working in a tax collector’s office.

But the certification isn’t mandatory, and once tax collectors obtain it, there’s no requirement for continuing education, Biagiarelli said.

She said the committee of tax collectors proposed requiring 50 hours of coursework over a five-year period in order for tax collectors to maintain certification, but that officials in the Rell administration shot down the proposal.

Hello, Hartford?

While state-mandated tax collector certification may seem like a solid idea, State Rep. Len Greene, a Republican from Seymour, pointed out you can’t train people to be honest.

“When it comes to what (allegedly) happened in Oxford and Derby, that’s a moral issue right there. That’s right and wrong,” Greene said. “That’s something that shouldn’t need to be trained.”

“Unfortunately, maybe we do need to have some kind of standard that people need to adhere by,” Greene went on. “But I would imagine most people would know the difference between stealing and not stealing.”

State Rep. Jason Perillo, a Republican from Shelton, said that implementing the certification law has “clearly become a problem” but that he hopes the recent spate of local problems “lights a fire” for officials with the Connecticut Tax Collector’s Association and the state’s Office of Policy and Management to “sort this out so we have appropriate standards.”

“Every legislator wants to make sure that residents’ tax dollars are collected and used appropriately. When you see incidents like this occur, obviously it becomes an impetus for further action,” Perillo said. “Hopefully you’ll see the (CTCA) and OPM are pushing this and making it a priority.”

Biagiarelli said the ball is in OPM’s court.

“We’ve had Oxford. We’ve had Ansonia. We had Derby. Who knows what else is going on,” she said. “People are talking about this now, so I think OPM might have a sense of urgency to move it on a little bit.”

Elected Or Appointed?

The bigger issue with tax collectors, according to Biagiarelli: roughly half the state’s towns elect their tax collectors.

“That’s the root of the problem,” she said. “We can do all these other Band-Aids on things, which is what (the certification law) is, but it’s not really getting to the root of the problem.”

“This is a technical job,” she said. “It’s not a policy-making job. It should be appointed. There shouldn’t be elected tax collectors anymore.”

And it doesn’t seem like that will change anytime soon — to make the change municipalities would need to change their charters.

The Town of Oxford — the scene of, by far, the most serious Valley tax scandal — tried to do just that.

But, even after Guillet’s thefts were discovered, residents overwhelmingly rejected a charter revision that would have made the tax collector an appointed position.

“They (tax collectors) like being elected because they feel they’re insulated from interference from their first selectmen,” Biagiarelli said, literally scoffing at the notion.

Regardless of whether a tax collector is elected or appointed, certified or not, she said there must be checks and balances in place. For example, she said Bostic was a recent student of hers in the association’s certification program.

“If there’s no oversight within the rest of the town, you’re going to have somebody committing fraud,” she said.

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posted by: Melanie Kalako on September 7, 2012  6:18pm

I agree with Len Greene that you can train people to be honest, Tax Collectors should be trained and certified to keep unqualified people from getting the job. The problem with appointed positions is that very often people with no training or experience, but having political pull, are appointed to jobs for which they lack any qualifications, education or experience.  Not only should Tax Collectors be certified, but their assistants as well.  If there are two people in the office and one of them is dishonest, hopefully, the other person will be able to detect the problems as happened in Oxford. I’m glad Mr. Miller is having a department audit in Seymour.  I hope there are no problems but suggestions from the auditors on a better way to handle things.

posted by: Kathryn A. Pantaleo on September 8, 2012  12:38am

There should be periodic, independent external audits.  Oversight keeps people honest.

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